How to have safe holiday gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic has surely been on everyone’s mind as Christmas approaches. With COVID-19 cases hitting an all-time high, making the decision not to gather in person may be the most loving one a family can make this holiday season. This is especially true in families with high-risk members, such as older adults and people with pre-existing conditions. There is no such thing as completely safe holiday gatherings in these times, but there are some ways to reduce the dangers.
Keep It Small
If you do have a family gathering, keep it as small as possible. It’s important to consider both the total number of attendees and the number of households you are bringing together. Gatherings should be kept to a maximum of 10 people, but a celebration with 10 people from a single household carries less risk than a celebration with 5 couples from 5 different households. Some cities, counties, and states have limits on gathering sizes, so it’s also important to check the latest health directives where you live before finalizing plans.
There are also many other factors that could increase risk. Are any of your family members frontline workers? Have all your family members been socially distancing and/or quarantining? Do any of them have pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable? Individual circumstances matter, so when making your guest list, consider the risk each individual both poses and faces by coming to your gathering.
Even a small gathering can be the cause of an outbreak. Texas resident Tony Green is a self-described former COVID skeptic who contracted the virus at a 6-person family gathering at his home, in which there had been no masking or distancing. “I have no idea which one of us brought the virus into the house, but all six of us left with it,” Green told the Washington Post. Those six cases more than doubled, and before the ordeal was over, he was hospitalized with COVID-19, and his father-in-law and another family member died of the disease.
Before going anywhere, check how the epidemic is playing out in your local region at the time of travel. It is difficult to put a strict cutoff on what kind of COVID-19 numbers should be deal breakers, but experts say the test positivity rate should be under 5% in any area where attendees will come from or travel to. It is safest to celebrate with people within your community so as to avoid transmission among different regions–if people travel between communities, a single holiday could fuel a community-wide surge.
If you must travel, the safest way is by car. Properly distancing in the confined space of a vehicle is impossible, so it is also best to travel only with household members. If this is not possible, make sure everyone is wearing a mask and roll the windows down.
Air travel is perhaps the most dangerous form of transportation during the pandemic. It is not so much the airplanes but the airports that pose the most threat. Airplane ventilation systems can do a pretty good job, but they usually only function when the plane’s engines are running. If you end up on the ground for an extended period of time without the plane running, that could spell danger for all passengers and crew. Airports are even riskier, as people from all states and countries end up mingling, and you have no idea of knowing if any of the people around you come from a high-risk area. If you must travel by plane, wear a face mask and a face shield.
Stay Outdoors and Socially Distance
The best ways to cut the risk of transmitting the virus during a family gathering are to wear a mask, stay outside, and keep six feet apart. “We’re seeing very few outbreaks traceable to outdoor gatherings, especially if people are covering their faces and practicing physical distancing,” one scientist said. He adds that his department’s contact tracing has shown that “the most common cause of transmission is indoor gatherings. It’s parties.”
Obviously, not every part of the country is conducive to outdoor holiday gatherings, so you might have to get creative. This could mean celebrating holidays a few weeks early—or next spring, when the weather is nicer—or even swapping a big sit-down meal indoors with a lower-risk outdoor activity such as hiking, skiing, or gathering around a firepit.
Set Ground Rules Early
Make sure all family members have a very specific conversation about what they are and are not going to do in the weeks leading up to your celebration. Communicate your activities and risks to family and friends so they can assess whether the risk for them is too great. What you want to avoid is surprise exposure, where you get to the gathering and find out that someone else there has been doing things that feel like too much risk to you.
It could also be helpful to talk about everyone’s feelings on how things are different this year. Wearing masks at a family gathering may feel a little weird, and it is okay to say so. Another approach is to poke fun–perhaps instead of an ugly Christmas sweater contest, you could have an ugly Christmas mask contest.
Take Precautions Before Gathering
When planning safe holiday gatherings, everyone involved should be scrupulous about good COVID behavior for two weeks beforehand. This includes wearing masks, social distancing, and reducing contact with people from outside the home as much as possible. The least risky way to include elderly or other at-risk relatives is to have attendees sequester themselves at home for two weeks, avoiding all in-person social contact, and then drive to the gathering while being very careful about interactions along the way. If conducted carefully, this strategy can substantially lower risks of transmission, but it’s also a difficult feat to pull off.
If quarantining beforehand is impossible, you can still take steps to limit your exposures prior to the gathering. Testing is a good idea if it is available, with the ideal time for it being five to seven days after your last exposure to someone outside of your quarantine bubble. Do not use a test as an excuse to be complacent, however–the tests are not perfect, and a negative test is no guarantee that you do not have the virus. People can test negative in the morning and have symptoms in the afternoon.
Unfortunately with COVID-19, careful planning doesn’t mean that things won’t have to change on short notice. If your area has a sudden spike in cases, you should adjust your plans accordingly.
If figuring out how to have safe holiday gatherings feels difficult, that’s because it is. There are no easy answers, and it’s exhausting to be making these decisions on an everyday basis for such a long period of time. It is important to recognize that the choices are not between “safe” and “unsafe,” but are rather on a sliding scale of risk. Everything we do to adapt our lives to this virus is going to have some trade-off, and accepting and acknowledging those trade-offs can be helpful.
The very safest way to celebrate this year is still together, but “heart-to-heart, not face-to-face,” scientists say. We shouldn’t give up on the hope that we can be together safely this year, but please do consider virtual, safe family gatherings for the safety of everyone.
For more information, please click here to view the CDC’s official guidelines on holiday celebrations this year.
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