It’s hard to believe that the holidays are already upon us. Since March, COVID-19 has upended every facet of our lives — from our relationships to our careers and the ways we communicate. Now, it's changing how we celebrate, too. After a year as rough as 2020, the holidays might feel like the perfect excuse to reconnect with your loved ones without the mute button. But, we have to remember that we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, and if we’re getting together, we have to do so safely.
That means social distancing, staying outside as much as possible, washing your hands often, and masking up — we’re looking at you, Kendall Jenner. We’re not trying to sound like a broken record here, but we know that these precautions work and help quell the spread of the virus, so keeping up with them during the holiday season is a must.
Ahead, we asked doctors and epidemiologists for their tips to responsibly enjoy the holidays this season.
Home Alone had it right
First thing’s first — the only way you can 100% prevent the spread of COVID-19 is by staying home and going virtual with your holiday plans this year. There’s no way to get around that, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project.
“This sucks,” Rivera says. ”Nobody is denying that this is horrible, and it should not have gotten this out of control and this bad. The fact that we are nearing 100,000 cases per day in November is bananas.” She’s right. We’ve been trying to deal with this virus since March, and while other countries have had their quarantines and regulations come and go, the U.S. is still behind in eradicating the virus. “We all have to take one for the team here, and to do something for public health means to take this sacrifice — even though it’s been a whole year of sacrifice — just a little bit more, otherwise we are at risk of things getting really, really bad in the winter,” Rivera says.
It sounds harsh, but it’s true — things could get really bad, and it may all depend on whether or not we follow the rules. “There’s no zero-risk scenario here,” echoes Anne Rimoin, PhD, professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Everybody has to keep in mind that these holidays are not going to be like others. We all need to be very cautious because we have rising cases, and we have the potential for exponential spread throughout this country, and that means a lot of unnecessary illness, a lot of unnecessary severe illness, and unnecessary death.”
Grim, but important to remember. The safest holiday plans you can have this year are ordering in some food, turning on your favorite holiday movie, and connecting with your friends and family via Zoom, or any other virtual mode of communication.
Call up your quaranteam
If you, like many others, have established a quaranteam, it’s time to have a transparent conversation with them before the holidays. “The bubble system works if everyone is being 100% honest 100% of the time,” says Rivera. “That means asking everyone what are their levels of comfort with risk, what things they’re doing that involve risk and the frequency of those things, and what can they all do to reduce those activities or to stop those activities.”
You’ll also need to consider and monitor the government regulations depending on where you are in the U.S. Right now, Los Angeles county does not allow private gatherings that include people from more than three households. In New York state, it all depends on what phase your region is in. Make sure to check your local regulations before setting any plans in stone, as they are subject to change.
And if you’re feeling even slightly sick, stay home. “If you're feeling under the weather, whether you have any symptoms that match or fit COVID or not, stay home,” Erika Schwartz, MD, an internist and the founder of ES Health, a Manhattan concierge medical practice says. “And if you have symptoms of COVID, go get tested, and don't go anywhere.”
Test when you can
Testing is more widely available now than it was at the start of the pandemic, so if you’re nervous about spreading the virus to your loved ones, it’s a good idea to get tested before you see them to establish that you aren’t positive for COVID-19. This way, you’re not only protecting the people that you love, but you’re also giving yourself a level of comfort that comes with receiving a negative test. But it’s also important to remember that testing isn’t a COVID prevention strategy in itself — it’s just part of the process.
Rivera’s surefire testing plan is this: If you’re planning on seeing people in person, you should start a quarantine and get tested a few days after starting it, preferably with a PCR test, which she calls the “gold standard of diagnostics.” Then, quarantine yourself until you get the results. Once you get a negative result, you can travel to where you’re planning on spending the holiday — preferably by car, as that’s the safest way to get from point A to point B during a pandemic because you can more easily control the environment around you. Then, upon arrival, get tested again and quarantine until you receive the results. It sounds like a pain, and can get more complicated with every added person on your list, but it could potentially save a life.
Again, any kind of travel will increase your chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 — and as cases continue to rise in the U.S., we’re still unsure if travel will even be possible for the holidays this year. If you’re heading to another state, you’ll want to be mindful about the rules. Some states may require that you quarantine for 14 days or show proof of a negative COVID test to enter.
“That’s what makes this so tricky, it’s about budgeting time as well,” Rivera says. “Not many people have the luxury of time before to not work and do things and time after to include in a trip.” It can also cost you money if you end up having to isolate in a hotel or Airbnb, so it’s definitely something to consider as you make plans.
It’s also important to note that not all COVID tests are 100% accurate — even if you do this system perfectly, there’s still room for error or a chance you could be carrying the virus and receive a negative test. “Even when you’re at your most infectious, there’s up to a 20% possibility of having a false negative test,” Dr. Rimoin says. “Testing is never a guarantee.” So, regardless of your test results, keep following COVID regulations.
Take it outside
If you’re going to meet up with friends and family in person, your safest bet is staying outside. “Outdoors is definitely much safer than indoors,” Rivera says. “If you’re going to see people, I’m always going to say weather permitting, go outside.” She points out that choosing to be outdoors during this time is going to make it a lot less stressful and less risky for everybody. But, even though you’re outdoors, Rivera says to keep your masks on. “The six-foot rule is not a hard, fast rule where droplets could not transmit further or less than that — it’s an estimate,” she says. “Droplets can travel much further, especially if they’re propelled through a cough or wind, so I would say keep as much physical distance as possible.”
If you’re not in an already warm area, you can consider renting a heater or tent, safely lighting a bonfire, and leaning into the cozy holiday vibes with a hot cider, some festive fleece pajamas, and big wool blankets.
If you choose to be indoors, prop open a door and some windows to keep the air flowing. Another good idea is to shorten your holiday party — the longer you’re around others, the more likely you are to spread a virus or other sicknesses to them. The CDC says that you just need to be around someone for 15 cumulative minutes over a period of 24 hours to increase your chances of getting COVID. Nobody likes holiday party stragglers, anyway.
Skip the Thanksgiving turkey buffet this year
If you do end up making plans to meet up with others to celebrate and you’ve made it through both quarantining and testing, it’s a good idea to skip the buffet-style dinner (and dessert) as an extra precaution.
“You're just exchanging germs and that would be whether we have COVID or not,” says Dr. Schwartz. Another thing to be mindful of this year is how you’re preparing the food for your holiday celebration, she says. “The ones who cook, who prepare, and who set the table should be washing their hands.”
It doesn’t hurt to be overly cautious this year with food and how we share it; while there isn’t any direct evidence about COVID-19 spreading this way, it’s definitely a possibility. (Especially with your cousin who’s prone to double-dipping). Divide the bowls of M&Ms, popcorn and holiday bark so there aren’t a bunch of grabby hands digging into them — which, let’s be honest, was gross even before COVID.
Avoid the eggnog
Most of the time, holiday celebrations warrant a stiff drink or two — especially when they’re spent with family — but this year, it might be best to skip the morning mimosas or wine with dinner. “[Alcohol] lowers your immune system's ability to fight infections,” Dr. Schwartz explains. And you’ll want to keep your immune system as tough as possible this year to protect yourself and those around you from COVID-19 and other illnesses.
It’s not just avoiding spirits though, Dr. Schwartz says. “Focus on improving your lifestyles because the outcome will be protection against COVID,” she explains. So exercise more often, eat your fruits and veggies, drink water, get enough sleep — you know the drill. Taking care of your body may help protect you against coronavirus and other seasonal viruses (like the flu), which is definitely ideal.
Another reason to lay off the booze: It lessens your inhibitions and makes you more likely to flout safety guidelines. It's why many places, including New York, have enacted curfews to prevent large crowds from gathering and maintain social distancing under the influence of alcohol.
Remember — you can always go virtual
Even with all of these extra precautions, there’s still a chance you could spread the virus if you’re leaving your home. “You can be safer, but there’s no guarantee that you’re safe,” Dr. Rimoin says.
That’s where virtual gatherings come in. Zoom parties were all the rage at the beginning of quarantine. If you’re feeling the Zoom fatigue, though, shake things up with a fun, holiday-themed trivia to play with your friends and family — we recommend downloading Jackbox games for some family bonding as well as Netflix Party to recreate your family’s Christmas Eve movie tradition. You can even book a virtual visit to a farm on Goat To Meeting for a cute petting zoo experience, minus the frigid temps. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we can still feel connected to one another, even if we’re not in the same room.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.