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Safety During the Holiday Season: How to Modify Your COVID-19 Celebrations

hosting safe holiday celebrations covid 19 pandemic coronavirus

“There’s no place like home for the holidays,” the classic tune says, and indeed, as we navigate the winter holiday season in the COVID-19 era, experts across the country have insisted that staying home is the best and safest option. That doesn’t make it sting less, though. After months of isolation, economic anxiety, and pandemic fatigue, it’s completely understandable that people are yearning for hugs from family members and huge amounts of carbohydrates.

The reality is that hosting large parties, traveling to see friends and family, and brushing off masks and social distancing can have serious consequences that extend far outside of your own circle; the majority of COVID-19 cases may result of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission. The good news: With some modifications, you can still make the most out of the “most wonderful time of the year.”

“We’re in a very difficult time, it presents a wonderful opportunity to be creative, put family and friendship first, and celebrate the good things we have. During this once-in-a-generation moment, it’s an act of love to keep your friends and families safe — for as long as it takes,” said Richard C. Wender, MD, chair of Family Medicine and Community Health in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Check out the scenarios below. If they resonate with you, consider how you can adjust your plans to ensure you’re keeping yourself, your loved ones, and your community safe and healthy. 

Are Indoor Holiday Parties Safe?

Each year, more than 30 extended family members pile into my aunt’s house for Thanksgiving. If we pass around hand sanitizer like a hors d’oeuvres plate, we can still celebrate together, right?

The verdict: No, this is too risky. Skip large parties this year. “People keep thinking we’re giving a choice between social distancing or masking, but that’s not the recommendation,” Wender said. Masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene are all crucial in combination to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It gets risky at a bustling indoor party where family members are huddled in the living room, delicious food prompts masks to come off, and windows are shut against the chilly November air.

Furthermore, large gatherings may highlight that what’s recommended in one area isn’t recommended in another; while your cousin has no intention of getting you sick, they may not be isolating as often as you are because they’re following laxer guidelines. Statistics have shown that you’re more likely to contract COVID-19 from a loved one than from a stranger. It is because of these risks that many cities and states have issued orders limiting indoor gatherings, even in private homes — such as New Jersey’s prohibition on most indoor gatherings of more than 10 people, and Philadelphia’s ban on private gatherings of any size with people outside of your own household until January 1, 2021.

“This is the year for creativity,” Wender said. “This is the moment to say, ‘I did everything I could to keep my friends and family members safe and still have some fun along the way.’”

Merry modifications: If you live close to family, organize a meal exchange; each household can make and drop off a different dish with a quick, distanced hello outside the front door. If you’re spread out, swap recipes ahead of time so everyone can enjoy grandma’s famous stuffing. Make a shared Spotify playlist, and encourage everyone to don their comfiest PJs. To enjoy the experience of a communal meal, have each household set up a Zoom call on the TV at dinner time. Fill your plate and settle down for a special holiday twist on the TV dinner.

Stuck in a Holiday Season Slump? 

  • Hop in the car, crank up the Christmas music, and take a drive around to check out local holiday light displays.
  • Get outdoors: Go sledding or ice skating, or take a wintry walk or hike. Remember to stay masked and distanced!
  • Exchange gifts with loved ones via mail or contactless drop-offs — bonus points if you purchase items from small, independent businesses!
  • Savor the season by testing out some cozy recipes. I recommend starting with some easy and delicious Crock Pot mulled apple cider and a pie or two.
  • Whip up some holiday cookies or treats for an exchange with friends. Be sure to coordinate contactless drop-offs/pick-ups.
  • Engage in self-care: Grab a book and a mug of your favorite holiday beverage, then get cozy by the fire (or a virtual Yule log).
  • Challenge your kids (or yourself!) to build the coolest pillow fort ever, then enjoy a holiday movie marathon from inside.
  • Get crafty: Host a virtual paint and sip event with your friends, or create handmade gifts or holiday cards for loved ones.
  • Reach out to local food banks, shelters, and community organizations to see how you can safely serve your neighbors in need.
  • Settle down for a long winter’s nap. Seriously. You’re probably dealing with COVID-19 fatigue, and your brain deserves a break.

Look for more tips on how to deal with the holiday blues and other emotional impacts of this unusual holiday season on the next post on the Penn Medicine News Blog!


Are Outdoor Holiday Gatherings Safe?

My family observes Kwanzaa. We come together on the last night to celebrate our community and culture with the Karamu feast. Our weather is mild — could we host an outdoor, picnic-style meal?

The verdict: Yes, outdoor celebrations can be safe if you take proper precautions. As temperatures drop, more people are being forced indoors. However, if you live in a warmer climate (or have access to blankets and an outdoor heater), you may be able to coordinate a safe outdoor event with a bit of advance planning. “Every event that can be held outdoors should be held outdoors,” Wender said. “We’ve definitely proven that the more ventilation you have, the safer it is. If you can’t be outdoors for the entire event [and indoor gatherings are permitted in your area], make sure you keep doors and windows open in indoor spaces.”

Being outdoors reduces risk, but it doesn’t magically eliminate the chance of COVID-19 transmission; you should still incorporate other ways to maximize safety. Quarantining for 14 days before and after the event should be done whenever possible to reduce the chance of transmission, and asking attendees to get a test can offer some added reassurance. Just remember that even outside, masking and social distancing are both needed. Skip the hugs, kisses, and handshakes this year, and be sure to increase separation between guests when it’s time to eat.

“Our goal here is to be together, but to avoid any risk that we’re going to have to call somebody later and say, ‘Well, turns out that there was COVID in the house,’” Wender said.

Merry modifications: Keep the guest list small, and have each household bring their own food rather than setting out a buffet. Turn up the music, set up a game of (masked) cornhole, and find ways to adapt traditions, like swapping the communal libations cup for individual drinks. If it gets chilly, just bundle up! Bonus points if you can safely enjoy a campfire.

Avoiding in-person gatherings with those outside your household is still the safest option, with the advantage that virtual gatherings can include more people from more places. Stay connected with faraway family virtually throughout the week, perhaps by lighting each candle together and reflecting on how the Kwanzaa principles are more relevant than ever — especially kuumba, or creativity!

Can I Travel to Celebrate the Holidays?

My siblings and I fly home to visit our parents for Christmas. We live in different states, but we’ve been diligently social distancing throughout the pandemic. Do we have to cancel this year?

The verdict: Whether by plane, train, or automobile, you should cancel all unnecessary travel this year. COVID-19 is surging across the country; even if your community has low case counts, that may not be the case for folks you’re sharing a flight with — or a dinner table. “I realize there may be absolutely critical reasons to travel, but a celebration is not going to be a strong enough reason to do it right now,” Wender said.

Merry modifications: Try to focus on the positive: You won’t need to deal with long security lines, spend hours waiting on the tarmac, or worry about hotel cleanliness this year! Send presents in the mail ahead of time, then open them as a family on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning via video call. Have everyone wear their ugliest Christmas sweater, or share each household’s gingerbread creations on the call for some friendly competition. Don’t forget to enjoy some eggnog while you totally crush your siblings in a few rounds of Jackbox games!

Can I Visit an Older Relative This Year?

My grandfather lives in a nursing home. Due to his health and age, my family sadly believes this will be his last Hanukkah. We want to make his last holiday special. Can we visit him?

The verdict: Probably not. Use extreme caution and follow local guidelines. As COVID-19 cases continue to spike, the virus has spread through nursing homes and assisted-living facilities like wildfire, leaving vulnerable residents and staff at heightened risk. Many facilities are urging families not to take residents home for the holidays, and others are warning of heavy visiting restrictions. For Wender, “The general rule is pretty straightforward: We shouldn’t be gathering with people who are at high risk to get seriously ill or succumb to a COVID infection.”

While it may not feel as special as you hoped, it’s important to remember that the best thing you can do for loved ones this holiday is help keep them safe and healthy. “You have to remember that you’re going into a facility where, even if you’ve been very careful, the last visitor may not have been,” Wender said. “This is a very vulnerable time. If you’re going to take that risk, take as much care as you possibly can.”

Merry modifications: This isn’t the year for a handful of family members to gather in a nursing home resident’s room with containers full of latkes and sufganiyot. To share the spirit of celebration without risking an in-person visit, ask staff if they could place small decorations like a battery-operated menorah in your loved one’s room. Many facilities have phones and tablets for residents to use, so set up times throughout the week to sing, recite blessings, and celebrate over a call or video. If the facility does allow in-person visits due to exceptional circumstances, consider going one at a time throughout the week, always following all visitation rules and precautions. Masks, face shields, gloves, and quarantining before the visit are all wise precautions — though, again, it is safest to avoid in-person visits, even if they are allowed.

As a Single Person, Can I Form a Bubble to Meet with Friends?

I live alone, and I usually spend New Year’s Eve at a bar with friends. We agreed it’s too risky this year, but do I really have to ring in 2021 by myself?

The verdict: There are safe ways to form small in-person groups, but it takes advance planning. Hosting a remote celebration is the safest option, especially if you’re at a higher risk of infection. However, if your mental health is suffering due to a sense of isolation, rest assured that you don’t have to watch the ball drop with only a bottle of champagne for company. If you’ve been spending time with a ‘bubble’ or ‘pod’ throughout the pandemic — think six people or fewer, all of whom have followed precautions and not met indoors or unmasked with others outside that bubble — hosting a very small in-person gathering may be done safely… if you’re careful.

“I think this pandemic has probably been toughest on people who live alone,” Wender said. “We’re social beings, and having the support of a safe group is great. If may not be the group you usually celebrate holidays with, but I think this is a great opportunity to create new traditions.”

Kick off the planning process as soon as possible. Keep the group small, and set expectations early regarding quarantining and testing before the event and masking and distancing during the event. If indoor gatherings for your group size are allowed where you live, consider whether you can keep your indoor space ventilated, sanitized, and distanced, or whether it would be better to plan an outdoor activity. “Part of staying safe is making sure people have social support,” Wender said. “Use your creativity to keep yourself and others safe from COVID, while also feeling connected to family and friends.”

Merry modifications: If members of your group aren’t comfortable getting together or don’t feel well, or if you can’t agree on your expectations about quarantining in advance, sharing cocktail recipes and resolutions during a Zoom call is a festive and safe way to welcome the new year. Order a sequined face mask or swap that loungewear you’ve worn for most of 2020 for something sparkly. Stick to sharing midnight kisses with those from your household!

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