How to plan winter holidays in a pandemic


Editor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information contained in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


We’ve been able to learn a lot since March about the ways COVID-19 can spread and the ways it can affect us, and scientists are quick to point out that there’s still much to learn.


There’s one thing we know for sure, though:


“This year’s holiday season (both fall and winter) is going to look a lot different,” says Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.


Summer holidays were approached a bit differently than in the past, but we were able to celebrate outside. Gonsenhauser points out that in these fall and winter months, we must approach indoor celebrations with an extra measure of caution.


“Masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, crowd size control—all of those precautions are just as important now,” Gonsenhauser says. “Of added importance now is a focus on crowd size, social distancing and ventilation in the indoor spaces where you might be holding celebrations.”


What needs to change for 2020 celebrations to be safe


Limiting in-person contact

The safest way to approach your holiday celebration is to limit your in-person gathering to your own household, connecting with other family and friends only virtually. And when it comes to holiday shopping, buying online is the safest way to avoid crowds.


“It’s not the answer anyone wants to hear, but it’s still the best answer,” Gonsenhauser says.


Mitigating risk

If spending holidays away from others is simply too much to ask, Gonsenhauser says there are a few things to think about:


  • Infection rates in your own community and in the communities of those you’ll celebrate with. “If rates are high—greater than 100 cases per 100,000 people in either community—you really may want to reconsider. And assess if anyone in the party has an elevated risk for serious illness. If so, they shouldn’t attend the gathering.
  • Personal contact. “As difficult as it will be, observing personal space and avoiding close contact is important. It’s hard not to hug, but with COVID-19 on the rise again, it’s the right thing to do.
  • The venue and seating. “Outdoor tents that are well-sealed and heated are similar to indoor venues. Open air is best, if possible. Consider the size of the room and tables and be sure that it can accommodate your party with ample room to maintain safe distances.”
  • Mask use. “Whenever you aren’t actively eating or drinking, your masks should be on.”


Traveling safely

If you need to travel during the holidays, Gonsenhauser says, your best bet is still traveling by car.


“Whether you need to quarantine is going to be determined by where you’re traveling from, where you’re traveling to and the recommendations of the local health authorities in both locations.”


If you must travel by plane, he says, wear a face mask at all times.


“And if you’re planning to have a COVID-19 test prior to traveling, please know that a negative test doesn’t mean you can avoid following these precautions,” he says. “Hand hygiene, social distancing and mask use all work together to protect us and our loved ones so that we can enjoy these holidays and move forward with care—not fear.”



How to approach decision-making with your family and friends


Over the past several months, we’ve all seen a wide variety of behaviors related to risk and safety. In a family of four, there may be four different thresholds. That’s why it’s important to clearly communicate your wishes and boundaries when it comes to the holidays this year, says Kristen Carpenter, PhD, chief psychologist in the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.


“Everyone involved needs to be on board with the plan,” she says. “Be clear about what you’re comfortable with, and understand that others will have different thresholds, and respect their wishes as well.”


Identify what about the holidays is important to you


“Let’s not forget that these traditions exist for a reason,” Carpenter says.


Holiday gatherings serve a function, and the primary function may be different for different people involved. When you’re unable to uphold those traditions in exactly the same ways as most years, it’s important to identify what you’d miss most.


“What does gathering achieve for you? Is it stepping away from work? Setting aside time to connect with others? Do you love to host and to share your home with others? If you can identify the function of those big gatherings—the needs they serve, the ways in which those experiences nourish you and yours—then you can piece together a different kind of holiday this year. It might not be the same, but it can still capture that ‘holiday spirit,’ creating some of those same feelings.”


Carpenter points out, for example, that if you‘re a person who loves selecting the “perfect” gift and there’s joy in those moments when the gift is opened, arrange a way to see the recipient's face virtually while they open that present. The same is true for cooking together, eating together and decorating together. Over these months, we’ve all learned new ways to be together apart.


Consider what has and hasn’t worked for other 2020 holidays


We’ve had some practice by now with celebrations in a pandemic. Most of us have had to make decisions about birthdays, weddings, baptisms, births, graduations and other gatherings and milestones.


“Reflect back on what variations worked for you and yours, and what didn’t, and determine how you might build a different plan based on those previous experiences,” Carpenter says.


Make a plan now—or don’t


“For some people, the uncertainty is compounding the stress of the holidays this year,” Carpenter says.


For some, it might feel fine to see what else might happen with COVID-19 before making a plan for Thanksgiving and other holidays. But for others, there’s relief and solace in making and having a plan.


“Within families, there’s usually some variation, but it might make sense for some to decide what to do sooner rather than later. And in that case, make that plan and proceed accordingly. Just because everything is up in the air doesn’t mean that we all have to be waiting.”


Remember that this is temporary


It’s starting to feel like COVID-19 has been here forever. With no clear end in sight, it can be difficult to keep moving forward.


“Hopefully this will be the last winter that looks like this for us,” Carpenter says. “Hold on to the thought that we’re taking safety precautions now so that we’ll all be better able to gather again when this is over.”

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