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You Asked, Experts Answered: Tips on Safer Holiday Gatherings

Who to invite, traveling tips and going virtual

By Margie Zable Fisher

How will you celebrate the holidays this year? Next Avenue asked our readers on Facebook last month: For those who celebrate: How has the pandemic affected your holiday plans? What will you do differently, and what are you worried about?

holiday scene, next avenue, safer holiday gatherings
Credit: Adobe

You shared your questions, concerns and thoughts. In turn, we reached out to experts to answer your questions and share tips on how you can have safer holidays.

To Gather or Not to Gather?

If you're on the fence about whether to get together in person, know that most experts recommend either canceling such holiday gatherings this year or being extremely cautious if you're having them.

"You don't want to take a risk. The price to pay is far, far, far too great," says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. "I have personally been involved with family situations where sons and daughters came home to celebrate parents or grandparents or be part of some joyous occasion. And somebody ends up in an intensive care unit for days to weeks or dies."

Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), suggests considering the potential challenges for everyone who might be gathering.

Questions he says that are worth asking: "Will there be people of advanced age? Relatives and friends who have chronic underlying illnesses of note? Will the people attending be on the same page as to how careful they have been? Is everyone's risk tolerance the same?" This is the season, Schaffner says, where we have to have some honest and trusting conversations.

"If it's November and cold, you can button up a little bit, and spend time gathering outside."

You can also check out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidelines for holiday gatherings.

Who Should Be Invited to Gatherings?

Before someone visits, Schaffner suggests considering this: Have both you (and any others in your household) and your visitor(s) been appropriately careful two weeks before the trip or visit?

One of Schaffner's concerns: kids in college and K-12 students attending school in person.

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"Even though they say they've been careful, we're worried about the COVID-19 risks of being around many other students," he says.

Dr. William Schaffner, Next Avenue, Safer holiday gatherings
Dr. William Schaffner

That issue, coupled with family members with noteworthy underlying conditions, are why his extended family is not sharing a meal together on Thanksgiving. "We're getting together for about an hour and a half on Thanksgiving day. We'll wear masks and sit in the living room six feet apart and have a conversation where we can all catch up," says Schaffner.

If You Do Decide to Gather

There are many concerns if you do choose to get together with others for the holidays. 

Reader Question: My out-of-town child is coming home for the first time since this pandemic. She will be flying in on a flight of about 45 minutes. What precautions should I take picking her up from the airport and coming into the house? And once we are in the house, what precautions should we take? How do we handle luggage from the plane? Eating utensils?

Travel medicine physician and board-certified pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Kunjana Mavunda shares her tips on safer traveling:

  • Ask a family member to drive you to the airport, rather than taking a taxi or Uber.
  • Wear a mask for the entire travel journey, including upon entering the airport, on the flight and when exiting the destination airport. Each airline has different rules about the types of masks allowed on flights, so check before flying.
  • Stay away from others as much as possible at the airport and on the flight.
  • Use hand sanitizer wipes (rather than gel) frequently during the journey but most importantly, try not to touch too many surfaces at the airports or during the flight.
  • Try to avoid using public bathrooms everywhere — airports, coffee shops and especially during the flight.
  • Use bleach wipes on all surfaces when entering the plane.
  • If you stay at a hotel, wipe down all surfaces, door handles, remotes and thermostats with bleach wipes; outside of your room, wear a mask and stay socially distant.

Do you need to wipe down luggage? "Yes," says Schaffner. "Spreading COVID-19 through inanimate objects has been downplayed, but I suggest wiping everything down with disposable wipes."

Once everyone has taken pre-gathering precautions and is at the table, you can forgo masks, use regular utensils and pass the sweet potatoes to the person next to you, says Schaffner. Buffets are fine, too.

"Some families are actually going to shelter in place for two weeks before getting together."

Some families may take additional safety steps by asking visitors to wear masks before and after the food is served and setting up separate seating areas for different groups of family and friends.

Visitors who are staying with you have hopefully done everything in their power to minimize COVID-19 risk to you and your family. Once they're staying with you in the house, they can take part in regular household activities, such as watching TV together, says Schaffner.

Reader Question: How long should visitors quarantine upon arrival, is driving still the mostly-safer option, when to get tested and how many times? 

Dr. Kunjana Mavunda, Next Avenue, safer holiday gatherings
Dr. Kunjana Mavunda

In addition to following all of the above-mentioned suggestions, "some families are actually going to shelter in place for two weeks before getting together," says Schaffner. "And some are taking this extra step: a week ahead of the event, everyone who is getting together is getting tested for COVID-19."

And yes, says Mavunda, driving is a better option than flying or taking a train or bus. "However," she cautions, "travelers need to consider how long the trip will be. If an overnight stay at a hotel is required, that increases potential exposure. Also, long trips will require stops along the way. Bathrooms, gas stations and restaurants are common places where germs spread."

Options to Traditional In-Person Gatherings

While you may not want to gather around your dining room table on Thanksgiving or other holidays, consider celebrating with family in other ways:

  • Gather outdoors. Says one Next Avenue reader: “We live in Texas, so we are planning for a (small group) socially distanced meal around the firepit on the patio.” Osterholm says: “If it's November and cold, you can button up a little bit and spend time gathering outside.”
  • Celebrate virtually. We’ve gotten pretty good at these types of events over the last many months, and you can find some fun ways to make your virtual Thanksgiving and other holiday meals fantastic, in this article featured by one of our news partners,
  • Choose a different time to celebrate. Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks are very busy times to travel. Choose a different day or week to celebrate, to avoid crowded airports, like our Managing Editor Richard Eisenberg and his family did

The Last Word

Still not sure what to do? Next Avenue reader Julie Pigott Robinson of Fort Wayne, Ind., shares what many of us may be thinking:"We'll miss the big family gathering at Thanksgiving, but it's more important to stay safe."

Photograph of Margie Zable Fisher
Margie Zable Fisher is a freelance writer and the founder of The 50-Year-Old Mermaid, where she and other 50+ women share their learnings and experiences on living their best lives after 50. Her website is Read More
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