By Polly Tita
Winter is coming, but the pandemic is lingering. That means the 2020 holiday season will be like no other. With some thoughtful and creative planning, you can maximize the joy while minimizing the spread of COVID-19.
Our many, diverse holidays often share the same centerpiece: Families gathered around the table for hours to share food, conversation and laughter — all the ingredients for a joyous holiday. But also a recipe for exposing ourselves and others to COVID-19, says Colleen Nash, MD, MPH, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center.
Regardless of which holiday you're celebrating, getting together with family for a holiday dinner carries significant risk, which is why government and medical experts advise against it.
“These celebrations usually center around family and friends eating together, talking and laughing for long periods of time, often very close together,” says Nash. “People may let down their guard because they feel safe around their loved ones, and they are tired of wearing masks. But visiting family have not been part of your bubble, and you risk exposing each other to the virus.”
COVID-19 cases have been rising rapidly across the U.S. and surging in Illinois, prompting the state to impose new restrictions, including halting indoor sports and dining and limiting outdoor gatherings. Most notably, the state is strongly discouraging family get-togethers and requests that residents limit the gatherings in their homes to members of their own household.
Some individuals are being tested for COVID-19 even though they do not have symptoms, thinking this will tell them whether it’s safe to gather with family and friends. But such testing may give you a false sense of confidence that you can mingle safely.
“A test on any given day only shows whether you were negative at the time of the test,” says epidemiologist Michael Lin, MD, MPH, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center. “It doesn’t mean you will be negative the next day or the day after that.”
Testing is important when you have symptoms of COVID or when you’ve been exposed to the virus. And you should always quarantine while you await results and if you test positive.
The best way to protect yourself and your family is to follow the precautions that are known to help stop the spread: hand-washing, social distancing and masking.
Wearing a mask has been proven to reduce your risk of spreading the virus to someone else and it helps protect you. But it’s important to wear a protective mask and to wear it correctly. “There are different kinds of masks available, and you need to wear it correctly,” says John Segreti, MD, Rush infectious disease specialist. Segreti shares important facts about masking in this video.
With the current spread of the virus and its potential to continue spreading through December, you may want to establish some new traditions and organize virtual family gatherings.
“You can find ways to adapt holiday traditions or adopt new ones,” says Janet Yarboi, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at Rush. “This time of year, traditions give us a feeling of being connected. But you can feel that sense of belonging by honoring a tradition you’ve done in the past or by trying something new.”
Helping your family cope
Children are often the ones who look the most forward to the holidays. So it’s a good idea to prepare them for changes this year.
“Let them know what to expect, what things will be different,” says Yarboi. “Tell them if they won’t be going to
Grandma’s house. Allow them to help come up with something fun to do instead. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.”
While you may be feeling upset about these changes too, remember your reactions often set the tone for how your family reacts.
“In situations where there is a lot of uncertainty, kids, especially little kids, will look to their parents to see how they should be processing the situation,” Yarboi says. “Parents should validate their child’s feelings of sadness or frustration, letting them know it’s OK to feel that way, but also redirect them to something more positive to keep them from falling into the trap of negative thinking.”
For teens, the pandemic may be causing a sense of isolation at a time in their lives when they most want interaction with their peers and to find their identity. Changed holiday plans could add to those feelings.
“Teens need the opportunity to build new relationships, try new experiences,” says Yarboi. “Parents can help them find ways to explore new activities and to look forward to milestones ahead.”
As kids deal with the pandemic along with everyday challenges, parents should watch for changes in their child’s behavior but also ask them how they are feeling. “Check in with them at a time when you can really listen and respond,” Yarboi says. “On the bright side, they’ve had many months getting used to restrictions and changes and most likely feel better able to handle the changes ahead.”
Tips for safely enjoying the holidays this year
- Celebrate in person only with those who live in your household, and reach out to other relatives virtually.
- Wear a mask outside your home and when you are with someone who isn’t living in your home, whether you are inside or outside. Make sure to wear the mask properly; it must cover your nose, mouth and chin to be effective.
- Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing and before you eat.
- Get tested if you have symptoms and/or have had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 and quarantine as needed; close contact is defined as being within six feet for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.
- Travel only if necessary. If you must travel, wear a mask at all times to protect yourself and others; that means staying masked and keeping six-feet apart from others both while you are traveling and during your stay.
- Thinking of taking the kids to see Santa? Perhaps arrange a personal phone call instead and/or mail a letter to Santa.
- Try a new volunteer effort you can do from home, such as making comfort blankets. Involve your children, parents, siblings or neighbors to create a sense of togetherness while also making a greater impact.
- Love watching football with your family or friends? Host a virtual watch party. It’s as simple as putting the phone on speaker while you and a friend or two watch in your own homes or you connect with a few others via a video call.
- Order a make-at-home meal from your favorite restaurant.
- Find a holiday tradition you still can do this year, even if it’s as simple as watching a holiday movie or making a gingerbread house.
- Learn to prepare a new recipe or watch and discuss a film or book via a webinar — on your own or with relatives or friends joining in at the same time. From museums and community organizations to restaurants and gourmet shops, non-profits and businesses are organizing any number of virtual tours, events, discussion groups and tasting parties.
And anytime you feel you are missing out on the holiday spirit, pick up the phone and call anyone you miss: Zoom, FaceTime, Skype or just talk.