The holidays will look remarkably different this year due to COVID-19. Months into the global pandemic, we continue to see how family gatherings are often responsible for spreading the virus, sometimes with fatal consequences.
That doesn’t mean we have to skip the holidays completely—but it does mean making major adjustments to our traditions to protect vulnerable relatives.
“You’ll need to get creative and have honest (and possibly uncomfortable) conversations with every member of your family about their individual safety needs and risk tolerances,” said Assoc. Prof. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago Medicine. “Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to develop plans, more plans and back up plans so you’re prepared and ready to make any last-minute adjustments if someone wakes up on Christmas morning with a sore throat.”
According to Landon, an infectious diseases physician who has become one of the state’s leading authorities on the pandemic, there are no easy answers or clear-cut decisions. But she does have recommendations and considerations that can help ensure your pandemic holidays are as safe as possible.
How can I safely celebrate holidays this year?
If you really want to safely celebrate the holidays, you’ll need to figure out how to avoid travel and large gatherings entirely while still weaving in traditions you know and love. Opt for a small gathering with those in your quarantine bubble. Maybe organize a family recipe swap so everyone has a chance to try making your aunt’s famous mashed potatoes. Consider dropping off favorite foods to older relatives. Try an asynchronous gathering on Zoom or weave in things like a family movie night where everyone watches a favorite holiday movie while chatting online. Get creative.
Why aren’t family gatherings automatically considered safe?
It’s really clear that family gatherings often become super-spreader events. That’s because people mistakenly assume they’re safe with trusted relatives and then don’t wear masks or practice social distancing. Holiday gatherings often involve travel, which adds risk. Plus, you’re spending time around extended family you may not see regularly. So on a practical level, whatever risk each person took in the past 10 or 14 days is the risk they’re now sharing with everyone else at your family’s dinner table. Your grandpa doesn’t need to go to a bar to get COVID-19 from a bar. He could get it from your cousin who went to a bar last week and is now unknowingly spreading the virus. Having all family members minimize additional activities in the weeks leading up to any gathering will decrease the risk of unknowingly carrying and spreading the virus to vulnerable family members.
What steps do I need to take before the holidays if I want to celebrate with family?
If you’re planning to host a holiday gathering, there are three main things you need to do ahead of time to ensure it’s safe.
- Require every person who attends to quarantine, preferably for 14 days. That means they shouldn’t go to work or in-person school. They shouldn’t leave the house at all except for medical care. If they do need to leave their home while they quarantine, they need wear masks, practice distancing and make sure anyone they’re interacting with is wearing masks, too.
- After quarantining, don’t travel long distances. Depending on what the situation is—where someone is, where they’re going and how they’re getting there—the risk of travel can be really significant for some people.
- Make sure everyone who’s attending is following the same set of protocols. Trust and honesty are absolutely crucial here.