With the uncertainty and isolation of living in a pandemic, celebrating with loved ones may feel more important than ever for the upcoming holidays. We crave connection, comfort, and tradition, a sense of returning to normalcy. The reality is, however, that family gatherings are one of the leading causes of COVID-19 outbreaks. How we fulfill these needs may spell the difference between a mild uptick or a catastrophic spike in COVID-19 cases in the new year.
The good news is that we have several months of experience to guide us. We know how our actions can protect ourselves and others. To make matters even clearer, the CDC has put together a thorough guide for holiday celebrations. We highly recommend you check it out! Here were our main takeaways:
best case scenario
The best way to celebrate this year is the zero-risk option: only gather in-person with people already in your household. You can find ways to make the day feel meaningful, to separate it from your daily family routine — themed craft activities, putting up decorations, cooking old family recipes, putting phones away to just connect. And, you can still bring faraway loved-ones into the celebration virtually! Schedule a time to video chat with those you miss, maybe opening presents all together or sharing a conversation prompt (what are you grateful for? What do you wish for in the coming year? etc).
Some families choosing this option are still managing to prepare meals together — each household makes a portion of the meal, splits it into sections and drops them off at each other home. That way, it lowers the workload in each kitchen, and you get the benefit of tasting one anothers’ recipes and feeling connected. If you choose this option, be sure to wear a mask and wash hands well when cooking and delivering your food!
While it may feel sad to not bring everyone together, the beauty of this single-household option is that you can celebrate without fear clouding the experience. You can know with certainty that you have not brought further risk to yourself, your loved ones, or your community.
before the big day
If you do decide to gather with those outside of your household, there are still many steps you can take to reduce risk! This begins before the actual day:
Know your limits — before you make any decisions, it’s important to understand your own situation. Think about your own risk level (age, overall health, pregnancy status, etc). Do you have people who rely on you, who are higher-risk? Take some time for introspection. How do you really feel about the situation? Will the benefits of seeing people in person outweigh the stress of increased risk? Whatever answer you come up with is your own personal truth, but it’s important to be aware of how you feel before making plans, so that you don’t arrive and realize that you feel too anxious or uncomfortable to enjoy the experience.
It’s also important to know your local, state, territorial, or tribal laws and guidelines. These laws are created based on your location’s needs and COVID-19 levels, and it is important to be aware of and follow the guidelines in your area, as well as those of wherever you travel to.
Preemptively lower your exposure — for two weeks before the holiday, think about your actions. Are there ways you could decrease your exposure levels? Wearing a mask whenever you leave the house, washing hands frequently, and staying at least six feet away from those around you are the best ways to keep yourself and your holiday safe. There may be other tweaks that could also make a difference! Could you order groceries to be delivered instead of going into the store? Work from home or only go into the office during off-hours? Skip social hangouts? Avoid crowded spaces? Each and every time you make the choice to reduce your exposure, you are lowering the risk of creating an outbreak at your event. Want to be extra vigilant? Consider fully quarantining for 7 days and then getting tested. That way, you can rest assured that you are not endangering anyone you love.
Travel — the way you arrive at your destination can also make a difference. Avoid public transportation as much as you can. This includes buses, trains, air planes… any scenario in which you are around other passengers for long periods of time. If you can stay local or only use your own personal vehicle, you eliminate potential exposure from other travelers.
Communicate — this piece is crucial. Conversations between everyone invited to the gathering need to happen to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Ask each other what your exposure level will be like in the 14 days before the holiday. Kindly give suggestions for lowering exposure. Share your travel plans and expectations for safety precautions at the event itself. Request that anyone experiencing symptoms at any point before the event inform the group. Consider asking folks to take their temperature each day the week before. Allow space for individuals to share any fears or concerns they may have, or the safety standards they hope others will be following. Afterall, it is important that each person has control over their own health and safety. Open, honest, and specific communication is imperative so that each person knows what they are getting into and can make an informed choice to attend or not. Remember in these conversations that these choices are not easy and may be more complicated for those with higher risk-factors like age, chronic illness, or compromised immune systems. Take steps to ensure that your dialogue remains kind and judgement-free.
Nervous about these conversations? Check out our guide to difficult conversations!
the gathering itself
Whether hosting the party or attending someone else’s, there are steps you can take to decrease risk on the actual day! The smaller your gathering, the better. The amount of exposure increases exponentially with each person present, especially people from separate households. Seating arrangements can also make a difference, with people of the same household seated closer together, and others separated by six feet (or as close as space permits). Any opportunity to get outdoors, open windows, or turn on air purifiers can help reduce airborne spread. And of course, wearing masks has been proven time and time again to significantly reduce spread. So, ensure that all people present are wearing masks unless eating. In particular, avoid singing or shouting when masks are off. The length of the event can also make a difference; the longer you are exposed to someone, the more likely you are to contract the virus. Consider keeping the indoors with everyone together portion shorter, and schedule the rest outdoors or virtually. Finally, avoid buffets or passing dishes from person to person. Rather, have a person or two in the kitchen (with washed hands and masks on!) serve each dish.
accepting the aftermath
If you do make the choice to gather for the holidays, accept that there may be consequences in the following weeks. Consider that you may have been exposed, and take actions to not put others in risk until you know you are safe. The safest option is to quarantine for 14 days, or 7 days and then get tested. Carefully monitor your own health and ask for status updates from those you gathered with before returning to work in-person or places like grocery stores. Again, consult your local, state, territorial, or tribal laws and guidelines — many locations require quarantining from anyone who has traveled or held in-person holiday gatherings. Recognize that a significant increase in cases after the holidays may lead to a tightening of restrictions in your area, and that you may need to stay up to date. By being aware of these changes needed ahead of time, you can communicate with employers and take the steps necessary to ensure a successful and comfortable quarantine.
None of this is easy, and there may be a level of grief at not being able to celebrate the way you want. Our collective mental health is struggling and we are all desperate for comfort. Remember, through these tough decisions, that the best thing we can do for our psyche is to end this pandemic as quickly as possible. This can only be accomplished through collective actions, through each and every one of us making careful choices to keep our communities safe.
Remember, we are Mightier Together!