How to safely celebrate holidays during the COVID-19 pandemic
October 28, 2020
I'm Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Chicago Medicine. We have flattened the COVID-19 curve before and we can do it again. But we need to keep our contact bubble small, like we did in the spring. I know that sounds hard, especially with the holidays on the horizon. But COVID is much more dangerous indoors when people aren't wearing masks. We all have to dig deep and find the grit and compassion we need to get through this together.
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. Unfortunately, that means making major adjustments to our holiday traditions if we want to protect Grandma, Grandpa and other vulnerable relatives.
But that doesn’t mean we have to skip the holidays completely. Instead, 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. 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.
As an infectious diseases physician at the University of Chicago Medicine, I can tell you that there are no easy answers or clear-cut decisions. But I can offer recommendations and considerations to ensure your pandemic holidays are as safe as possible.
Q: How can I safely celebrate holidays this year?
A: 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.
Q: Why aren’t family gatherings automatically considered safe?
A: 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.
Q: What steps do I need to take before the holidays if I want to celebrate with family?
A: 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.
Q: What precautions do I need to take if I’m hosting an in-person holiday celebration?
A: If you’re going to be together without masks or social distance — and everyone hasn’t quarantined and limited their travel beforehand — then you’re putting everyone at risk. If you’re not sure your brother is really going to quarantine the way he says he’s going to, you can take some additional precautions: Have really good ventilation and air flow in the house and spend time in the largest room you can as opposed to smaller, confined spaces. Crank up the heat, open the windows and put the best filter you can in your HVAC system. An even better option is to socialize and eat a holiday meal outside. Whether you’re inside or out, keep people as far apart as possible and do that as much possible. Wear masks whenever you can. Make sure everyone washes their hands before they eat and have some hand sanitizer at the table if you’re using shared serving utensils or holding hands for prayer. Most of all, remember: If you really want to be protecting Grandma, the best choice may be not inviting her at all.
Q: Is it safest to skip large family gatherings and holiday travel altogether?
A: If you’ve ever been looking for an excuse to get out of a family holiday, this is your year to take a step back. Think long and hard about what’s right for you and your loved ones. For many people that may mean creating new, smaller (and safer) traditions.
Q: What’s the best way to travel safely this holiday?
A: While it’s always an individual decision, traveling long distances for holidays is not a good idea when older and more vulnerable family members are involved in your plan. People often have incidental or unanticipated close contacts during travel, so the last thing you want is to have unplanned, high-risk contacts and then stay at your grandma’s house.
If you’re going to travel:
- Short flights are better than long.
- Consider staying in a hotel instead of with family.
- Wear a face mask while you’re traveling and wear eye protection (preferably a face shield) if you’re on a plane or in an area where others aren’t wearing a mask.
- Quarantine for seven to 14 days after you arrive at your destination.
Q: What do I need to discuss with my family/holiday guests before we celebrate?
A: If spending time with your family is important, decide what level of risk you’re willing to take and talk honestly about it with everyone. The biggest mistake is assuming everyone has the same definition of “careful” or that everyone does things the way you do. That leads to misunderstandings and puts people in situations where they feel like they have to bow to peer pressure even when they’re uncomfortable. Have candid discussions about each person’s requirements and what everyone’s expectations are. Default to the standards of the most cautious person in your group. If you can’t go that far, be OK with allowing more risk-adverse people to stay home to join by Zoom.
Q: I’m going to get a COVID test before I see my relatives. Is that enough to ensure that I’m being safe?
A: Unfortunately, a one-time test isn’t going to give you definitive answers about whether it’s safe to attend a holiday event without a mask and social distancing. Rapid tests miss a lot of COVID diagnoses, and a negative test today doesn’t mean you won’t develop COVID tomorrow from an exposure several days ago. The best time to get a COVID test is on days five to eight after an exposure. And even then, a negative test doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. So you should continue to quarantine until 14 days have passed from your exposure. If you develop symptoms after you get a negative test result, you may still have COVID, and you should consider getting another.
For additional information and COVID-19 holiday tips, check out information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.