family celebrating holidays in masks

Celebrating the Holidays Safely

David Ko, M.D., Family Medicine

As we head into the holiday season, you may be struggling with how to “do” the holidays safely. You may have relatives who haven’t left their ‘quarantine pod’ since the spring and may be reluctant to do so for the holidays, while on the other hand, you may have relatives who see no issue in getting together this year. Chances are you have a good number of relatives in the middle who want to gather and celebrate the holidays with loved ones — especially during a year where self-isolation has been encouraged — but want to do it as safely as possible. But can it be done? 

 

Understanding the Risks 

Even though the holidays may seem like a welcomed reprieve from the not-so-normal circumstances this year and may help you forget you’re living through a pandemic right now, they are not a time to lighten up on safety measures. Holiday gatherings are largely indoor multi-generational events, making them riskier than that socially distanced backyard barbecue you may have had this summer. 

Because of this, it’s still recommended that you only mingle with those within your household or quarantine pod. Additionally, new safety guidelines from the CDC discourage Americans from taking part in traditional holiday gatherings, especially since the holidays are when many families or family members travel long distances to celebrate together. Because traveling increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. 

But if you are still planning on meeting up with extended friends or family this holiday season, while not recommended, it’s important to understand the risks, as well as safer alternatives. 

 

Higher Risk Activities 

  • Going shopping in crowded stores, especially during Black Friday or the weeks leading up to Christmas
  • Participating or being a spectator at a crowded event, including parades, outdoor concerts or light shows
  • Attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household

 

Moderate Risk Activities

  • Having a small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community
  • Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins or picking apples, wearing masks is encouraged or enforced, and people are able to maintain safe distancing
  • Attending a small outdoor sports events with safety precautions in place

 

Lower Risk Activities

  • Having a small dinner with only people who live in your household
  • Preparing traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others
  • Having a virtual dinner and sharing recipes with friends and family
  • Shopping online
  • Watching sports events, parades, and movies from home

“Every family is different and in a unique situation,” says David Ko, M.D., a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and Texas Health Family Care in The Colony. “First you need to evaluate if you personally feel comfortable doing a live gathering or virtual instead. Next, you should consider the health level of yourself and your guests or family members — anyone who is going to be there. Look over the CDC list of conditions that put you at a higher risk for COVID-related complications. But, definitely, if you plan on doing something in person, there needs to be very good communication among everyone attending and a plan in place so that everyone is on board.”

 

Keeping it as Safe as Possible

If you still plan on hosting a gathering this year with extended friends and family, there are ways to navigate it as safely as possible. While Ko says quarantining for 14 days prior to the event is one of the safest options if you still plan on meeting in person, he understands it’s not always possible for everyone, so minimizing contact with those outside your home as much as possible is the next best alternative. 

Before the event, you should remind guests to stay home if they feel sick or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive with COVID-19 in the last 14 days. While it may be easy for you to remember family members who attended your gathering, if friends of family members or anyone you do not know well choose to join you this year, you should also consider keeping a list of guests and their contact information for potential contact tracing if needed. Writing it down once everyone arrives is a good way to make sure you don’t forget anyone by mistake. 

During the gathering, encourage your guests to keep a safe distance from one another as much as possible. When guests arrive, wave and verbally greet each other instead of shaking hands or giving hugs. If you’re used to planning activities to keep the kiddos or family members busy while the meal is coming together, opt for activities that allow for safe distancing or low contact, such as frisbee or drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. 

Host your gathering outdoors, if you can. Thankfully, North Texas is usually blessed with great weather during fall celebrations, but if weather doesn’t permit or eating outside isn’t feasible, make sure the room or space is well-ventilated by opening windows or doors. People from the same household can be in groups together and do not need to be seated 6 feet apart from each other, but each family will need to be spaced 6 feet from other families. Arrange tables and chairs accordingly. When safe distancing cannot be achieved or any time you are indoors, wearing masks should be encouraged, unless actively eating or drinking. 

Consider providing hand sanitizer to your guests. If you have a lot of children in attendance, it may make sense for you to have them stop what they’re doing every thirty minutes or hour so you can have them wash their hands. You may also want to consider providing cleaning supplies that allow guests to wipe down surfaces before they leave the restroom. Also set out single-use hand towels or paper towels for drying hands so guests do not share a towel.

Possibly the toughest part of the day will be limiting the number of people handling or serving food, especially if you’re used to many family members gathering in the kitchen to prepare their signature dish or help out. Limit people going in and out of the areas where food is being prepared or handled, such as in the kitchen or around the grill, if possible.

Consider having one person serve all food so that multiple people are not handling the serving utensils. Additionally, use single-use options or identify one person to serve sharable items, like salad dressings, food containers, and condiments, so that multiple people are not handling the items. As always, remind guests to wash their hands before serving or eating food. After the gathering, clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces and any shared items. 

 

The Holidays Can Still be Meaningful

Even if you’re making a small holiday dinner at home with your household or choosing to celebrate alone, that doesn’t mean it needs to be any less special. It’s easy to focus on what you can’t do right now but try to focus on traditions or activities that you can safely continue. 

You can still decorate, play festive music, finally commit to learning grandma’s recipe for her signature cornbread stuffing, etc. You can still send cards and sweets to friends and family. If your family typically takes a holiday card every year, you can poke fun this year by photographing how the family is “holding up” during quarantine. Don’t forget that it’s still safe to drive around and look at lights and decorations. 

“What it comes down to is just prioritizing your health and your family’s health. That’s the ultimate goal,” Ko adds. “Hopefully, when this is all over and we can meet with friends and family again, we will look back on this year and laugh about how crazy this year was and say, ‘remember that one year we had to do this?’” 

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