Every Question You Have About Seeing Family For the Holidays This Year, Answered By a Doctor

updated Nov 16, 2020
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Like many things in 2020, the holidays might look a bit different this year. With coronavirus cases rising across the United States, and experts predicting further spikes throughout the winter months, safety is going to be key. 

Given that many people will decide that traveling during the holidays simply isn’t worth the risk, that might mean a virtual Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends or eschewing a traditional meal altogether and plan an outdoor, distanced celebration instead (weather permitting).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that celebrating with people in your immediate household poses the lowest risk; expanding that circle to members outside of your household—particularly if they are elderly or immunocompromised—can increase risk. Dr. Kristin Dean, Medical Director at Doctor On Demand, tells Apartment Therapy that while it’s understandable that folks want to connect with family, the desire for close contact is what increases possible exposure.

“Many of us are used to hugging, laughing, and being close with our families during this special time of year,” she explains. “When we have family in our home, it can be difficult to maintain social distancing or wear a face covering, because it is not how we are used to spending time with one another. We know that people can be contagious before they show symptoms of COVID-19, or may never present symptoms at all, so being in close proximity with family may increase the risk of spreading the virus if we are not maintaining preventive measures.”

None of this is to say that the holidays are canceled, or that all celebrations are off-limits. It’s also worth remembering that everyone has different family dynamics and approaches to the holidays, and many people will be assessing their plans on a case-by-case basis. Here’s what you need to know about planning safe celebrations for yourself and your loved ones, along with steps you can take to ensure that everyone around you is protected.

Looking to stay in touch with a big family? Virtual celebrations are the best route

Using Zoom as a replacement for social activities can be tiring, especially if you’re on video calls all day for work. (Remember back in the spring when having virtual happy hour or game night was such a novelty? Simpler times.) But given the risks associated with in-person and especially indoor celebrations, and the fact that the CDC has identified small gatherings as a source of COVID-19 spread, online gatherings might be the safest option—or as Dean puts it, the “gold standard.” 

“Virtual gatherings allow you to socialize and connect without the risk of spreading the illness to vulnerable members of your family,” she explains, adding that it’s understandable that many people are still longing for that in-person, physical connection. “For many of us, this may be the longest time we have ever spent apart.”

Remember: Outdoor celebrations aren’t a cure-all

Depending upon where you live, the CDC identifies spending time outdoors with family or friends as a “moderate risk” activity. Checking the weather forecast isn’t enough—it’s also worth noting if coronavirus cases are on the rise in your area, which might impact the level of risk. Of course, planning an outdoor event can still carry some risk. To that end, any gathering should still be as small as possible, and shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to invite the entire group chat to the park, as tempting as it may be.

Dean notes that all safety precautions should still be taken even if you’re outside, including social distancing, wearing a face covering when less than six feet apart, washing hands often, and using disinfectant wipes on high-touch areas. “Additionally, it would be ideal for family members to self-quarantine for 14 days before the gathering. This can reduce the likelihood that anyone at the event has been exposed to the virus and is not aware of it,” she says, adding that folks could also consider getting tested for COVID prior to any celebration. Even so, false negatives are possible early in the illness, and an outdoor event may also put other people in the community at risk, especially if you’re in a public park rather than a backyard.

Air travel complicates things—a lot

As noted by the CDC, any kind of travel increases one’s chance of catching or spreading the coronavirus. Different states and areas might have different safety restrictions, so it’s important to be aware of the level of community spread at your destination, as well as any government advisories to quarantine upon arrival that are in place.

Dr. Dean points out that air travel is particularly risky, due to close contact with others over a prolonged period of time, along with exposure to surfaces that may be touched frequently. “If possible, a short car trip with family members within your household is the safest route of transportation to visit family this holiday season,” she says.

Before gathering indoors, it’s crucial to understand the risks involved

The CDC identifies “large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household” as a high-risk activity, especially if there is travel involved. To that end, experts recommend that hosts limit the number of attendees as much as possible, offer information about COVID safety measures to their guests, and provide protective equipment—such as masks and hand sanitizer—for those around them. And if you’re attending an indoor gathering, check in with the host beforehand to see what steps they have taken to mitigate risk. 

Dean adds that opening windows may help with ventilation, and that the precautions for outdoor events would apply indoors as well. “The recommendation for self-quarantine prior to the event and considering testing for COVID-19 could provide even more benefit for an indoor gathering, given that this is a higher risk activity,” she says.

It’s also worth noting that your social media feeds likely won’t be a great barometer of reality when it comes to holiday gatherings. Where Instagram is usually a place for festive highlight reels, you might see some folks seemingly dismissing health guidelines and having huge parties, while others could be tempted to gather without documenting it at all in an effort to avoid any social media shaming. Now is not the time to let a fear of missing out guilt you into dangerous situations. If you feel uncomfortable about attending dinner, listen to that voice. It’s best to ignore what you see (or don’t see) on your feed and follow the guidance set forth by health experts.

What holiday traditions are OK to take part in?

According to the CDC, crowded shopping malls—especially just before and after Thanksgiving—pose a high risk for COVID-19 spread. For that reason, it’s probably best to pass on any annual mall trips and do your shopping online instead.

But that doesn’t mean every holiday activity is off the table. Outdoor pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms provide a way to revel in the holiday spirit without risking too much safety. That said, there are still some things to consider. “Try to choose a place that has enough space to maintain social distancing from people that are not within your household,” Dean says, noting that face coverings and hand sanitizer are essential. “Choosing a location where the community spread of COVID-19 is low can also help reduce the risk of exposure.” As with anything else, if you have symptoms or you may have been exposed to the virus yourself, you should stay home.

And if you’re feeling sad, it’s OK to ask for help

It’s incredibly common to feel loneliness during the holidays, and it’s likely that more people than ever will be feeling this way amid the pandemic. It’s important to remember that you aren’t alone in those emotions, and that there are ways to cope. 

Dean suggests staying in frequent touch with friends and family if you aren’t able to see each other in person, and finding ways to get involved with your community—even virtually. “The act of giving can bring joy for people during the holidays and it doesn’t have to be costly,” she says. “Look into ways to give back to your community in a safe way to feel connected to others, and give yourself a boost.”

At any point, if loneliness feels overwhelming or you experience feelings of depression, it’s important to reach out to a trusted friend, loved one, medical professional, or a support hotline. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Dean emphasizes. “The ability to connect with a licensed provider through a virtual visit can allow you to get the help you need without having to experience this holiday season alone.”