Is it possible to enjoy a holiday meal with extended family or a gift-exchange party safely with friends or coworkers-in the middle of a pandemic?
With COVID-19 cases surging across much of the nation, staying at home with your immediate family is the wisest course, say UCI Health infectious diseases experts.
But if you do want to attend or host some social gatherings, keep them small. With careful planning in advance and strict adherence to basic safety rules, you can prevent them from becoming super-spreader events.
Kissing and hugging your guests is out this holiday season. Masks are in, along with ample hand sanitizer and scrupulous physical distancing of at least six feet from anyone who isn’t part of your core group.
Know the risks
Deciding whether to attend or host a holiday gathering is all about assessing and reducing risk, says Dr. Susan Huang, UCI Health medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention.
Questions to consider:
- How will you travel? Traveling by car alone or with your own household group is less risky than going by plane, train or bus.
- How many households are involved? Minimize the mixing and mingling of households. It’s safer, for example, to bring together two households of four, than four households of two. In fact three households should be the limit.
- What is the age mix of attendees? Kids and grandparents are usually a happy combination, but not so much in a pandemic. Children who attend school or daycare may have been exposed to the virus before the holiday gathering but not develop an infection for up to 14 days. Even then, they are likely to show mild or no symptoms, yet could spread the virus to their high-risk elders, who may not fare as well.
Ask yourself whether your children are old enough to follow masking and hygiene rules when greeting grandparents.
Attending a gathering
Besides the essential safety precautions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued some tips to protect everyone at Thanksgiving dinner or other holiday gatherings.
- Get your flu shot before you travel or attend a gathering.
- Where possible, bring your own picnic – food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils.
- Eat in a well-ventilated area.
- Remove your mask for as brief a time as possible to eat and drink. Store your mask safely while eating, then replace it immediately afterward.
- Avoid areas where food is being prepared or handled, such the kitchen.
- Use single-portion salad dressings and condiment packets, as well as disposable plates and containers.
Hosting a gathering
If you’re hosting a holiday gathering, it’s important to evaluate your surroundings and consider how people will interact when they arrive, says Dr. Shruti Gohil, UCI Health associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention.
Since sharing meals is among the higher risk activities we can engage in, try skipping the food and center the event around a gift exchange or game night instead.
Things to consider:
- Hold gatherings outside whenever possible. We’re fortunate to have good weather in Southern California during fall and winter. If you have to be inside, open windows or promote air circulation. The virus spreads mainly as respiratory droplets from infected individuals. Ventilation and air flow dilute the droplets and reduce the risk of exposure.
- Invite three or fewer households (including the host’s family). Seat family groups at smaller tables placed to keep households at least six feet apart. Keep higher risk people seated farther from others.
- Limit the length of the visit to two hours. Risk increases the longer you spend time in close contact with someone outside your household.
- Make hand hygiene easy. Ask guests to wash their hands when they arrive. Replace hand towels with paper towels. Place hand sanitizer at strategic places like entry ways, food pick-up locations and tables. Provide soap for handwashing in bathrooms.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces between uses.
- If you must serve food, rethink your meal. Nix buffets, shared utensils and do-it-yourself meal stations. Consider asking guests to bring their own food and beverages.
- Limit serving food to a fixed. If you leave snacks out, it encourages people to keep their mask off as they graze.
If you are preparing and serving a meal, Gohil recommends:
- Seating guests at tables for a set meal time, after which the plates are removed and masks are expected to be worn.
- Putting name tags at place settings so guests sit with their households but can still interact with people at nearby tables. Eating with your core group is important because virus transmission is highest when masks are removed for eating.
- Have prepackaged condiments and utensils at each place setting
- Limit people in food preparation areas.
- Portion the meals on disposable plates and have only one person (masked, with freshly washed hands) delivering them to the guests.
- Consider serving guests in rotation so that not everyone is unmasked at the same time.
“Maybe you can serve the children first while the adults stay masked,” Gohil suggests.
It’s also a good idea to plan and coordinate games such as charades and Pictionary that allow kids to have fun while keeping a safe distance from each other.
Set ground rules in advance
Have conversations with your guests well ahead of the event to set expectations.
Ask guests and their families to wear face masks covering their nose and mouth except when they are eating or drinking.
The more speaking and laughing that occurs without masking, the greater the risk of spreading infectious droplets.
“You need to ask yourself," Gohil says, "how can I limit the amount of time without my mask while I’m eating near someone else and talking at the same time?”
Staying the night?
Is it safe to spend the night at a relative’s house or is it better to book a hotel room?
Consider first whether there’s enough room for everyone in the home, Huang says. Are there sufficient bedrooms and bathrooms? Are they separate from others to allow physical distancing?
Then ask, is there a high-risk person in the home? Are you bringing a two-year-old who is in daycare into a home where someone at high risk for severe COVID-19 lives? If the answer is yes, stay in a hotel.
According to the CDC, anyone who has spent a total of 15 minutes within six feet of a sick person over a 24-hour period is considered to have been in “close contact.” That would include everyone at a holiday meal. Still, a two-hour dinner is far less risky than staying multiple nights with someone who isn’t part of your family group.
Coaching the kids
Children aren't mind readers. They need help understanding how they can protect themselves and others from spreading COVID-19, especially if a holiday gathering is in the works.
“Let your children and others know they have to speak up” if they are feeling sick, Huang says. "None of us likes the idea of having to be attentive to the mildest of symptoms, but it’s essential when we’re talking about visiting a high-risk individual.”
This is particularly difficult with children who are so young they don’t realize they have symptoms or may fear that speaking up will spoil everyone’s holiday.
“If you don’t have that conversation about the necessity of speaking up with children, they won’t think about it,” she says. “Let them know they’re not ruining everyone’s good time, that it’s their duty to speak up for everyone’s safety.”
What must be avoided?
Every family has cherished holiday traditions, but health concerns should push you to try new activities and skip others entirely.
These are the riskiest ways to celebrate Thanksgiving and other holidays this year, according to the CDC:
- Shopping in stores before, on or after Thanksgiving or Christmas. This includes crowded times at the local grocery store, Black Friday and after-Christmas sales.
- Participating in or watching a crowded sporting event or local marathon. Crowds increase your risk of infection overall.
- Attending a crowded party, indoors or out. Keep the holiday gatherings you attend as intimate as possible.
- Large indoor banquets. If you normally eat with members of an organization or your church, try to restructure the event or consider canceling it altogether.
- Visiting local attractions. This is a moderate risk activity if you avoid using public transportation to get to that fall harvest festival or apple-picking orchard. But stay masked and a safe distance from others while there.
Ultimately, the best way to lower your risk of catching COVID-19 is to stay home and dine only with those who live with you. There's no reason it can't be a virtual dinner with faraway loved ones. You can also watch sports events via broadcast and shop Black Friday sales online.
And if there are loved ones at high risk for illness if they are exposed to COVID-19, consider preparing or bringing a holiday meal to their door — safely, of course.