The holiday season—with its pumpkin patches, cornbread stuffing, and twinkling lights—is fast approaching, and with it come the questions: “I’ve been postponing non-essential travel and social activities for over six months,” you’re starting to think. “Can’t I just take a break from social distancing for some much-needed family time?”
There are no easy answers for how to make plans right now—especially if you’re at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications if infected. “COVID-19 is a virus that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” says Vinisha Amin, M.D., a family medicine specialist at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health in Bel Air. To stay sane, we all need things to look forward to, including our beloved annual traditions.
While we can’t tell you for certain what your holiday plans should look like, we can provide doctor-approved advice on how to think through those decisions with your loved ones.
Perhaps the hardest thing about planning social events is the fact that it’s getting colder outside. “Unlike summer where you could host events in your backyard, for most people, the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals will have to be inside,” notes Rashid Chotani, M.D., Medical Director and senior scientist at IEM in Morrisville, NC. As we know now from published research, the coronavirus is more likely to spread in closed-off indoor spaces than open air.
If you can manage an outdoor gathering, that’s your best bet in terms of safety. Dr. Amin encourages people to abide by these three rules for all social events:
- Request that all attendees wear masks.
- Have hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol available or have hand washing stations with soap and water for people to use.
- Try to maintain a six-foot distance from everyone who doesn’t live in your household, especially if that person is considered high-risk. (If you're planning to partake in trick-or-treating this year, depending on what your town is allowing, place individual treats spaced out on your porch or in a large tray outside of your home, so kids' hands only touch one thing. And, of course, wear a mask and stand at least six feet away from guests.)
For indoor events, it’s best to limit them to the people you are already quarantining with. “Perhaps it is time to reset the button on the traditional holiday feasts with extended family and friends,” Dr. Chotani says. “The safest bet to celebrate the holidays this year is with your household alone.” The CDC notes that if one member of your household is vulnerable, all other family members should act as if they are at higher risk, too.
This is especially true if you’re planning a sit-down meal. “Sitting unmasked in proximity with people not from your immediate household at a table for a lengthy amount of time equates to a high risk of transmission,” Dr. Chotani notes. Instead of a meal, consider another type of gathering. Could you go for a hike together? Sit around a campfire? Host a “potluck” where everyone brings their own food? “Consider finding an activity to do together that does not involve eating,” he suggests, “and consider seating guests apart from each other, preferably outdoors.”
You could also seat guests by “pods” together with others in their household to minimize risk of transmission between groups. Dr. Chotani advises having multiple food and drink stations without any shared utensils. If you’re outside, stock up on warm clothes and other layers to keep everyone comfortable. “You can provide personalized blankets to the guests to keep them warm and to take with as a holiday gift,” he suggests.
Tips for Making Plans
- Know the stats in your community. “Go to your jurisdiction COVID-19 website to learn what is happening in your community,” Dr. Chotani suggests. (The CDC and USA Facts both have maps of COVID cases by county.) If cases are spiking where you live, you might want to call off the plans. Again, this is especially crucial if you or a close loved one is at high risk for serious illness if you contract the disease.
- Ask your doctor for advice on talking to your loved ones. There’s nothing worse than trying to convince your family members to take this pandemic seriously. Dr. Amin suggests using the hard data about case numbers to help them understand why you need everyone to wear a mask. “Another helpful trick would be to partner with your physician and ask them to help you formulate a way to deliver pandemic safety measures to your loved ones,” she says. The CDC has a handy guide talking to children about the virus, a great tool if you’ll be bringing your little ones to a family gathering this fall.
- Be aware that those traveling from out-of-state may be carriers. Are you a parent of a college student who is traveling home for the holidays? Dr. Chotani urges extra caution in this scenario. “Parents of children who have been away at universities and are returning for holidays need to be extra careful,” he says. “The returning student may be a silent carrier or caught the disease while flying or traveling back from the university to home.” If possible, ask that your student get rapid tested before directly interacting with anyone in your household.
- Ask guests to take extra precautions. “If you are really nervous, ask those who plan to attend your event to get tested a few days before to confirm that they are COVID-19 free,” Dr. Chotani suggests. You can also ask your guests to quarantine carefully for at least two weeks prior to the gathering, and to take their temperature before arriving.
- Get creative and embrace change. It’s hard to let go of beloved traditions like family-style meals and white elephant gift exchanges. But you can still enjoy the company of loved ones, even if it’s in a different way. “Holidays are about family and being around loved ones,” Dr. Amin says. Planning safe and meaningful gatherings with others can help you stay motivated to keep social distancing this winter, even when it gets lonely and hard.
Above all, remember that we all need to look out for one another. “Please do recognize that we are all co-dependent on each other for each other’s well-being,” Dr. Amin says. “We should all wear masks, practice hand hygiene, and maintain good social distancing protocols this upcoming holiday season.” Your health and the health of your loved ones is the most important thing. The best way you can show love to each other is by prioritizing everyone’s safety.