How to Have a Safe Pandemic Holiday, According to Epidemiologists

Photo: Beth Teutschmann/Unsplash

Co-authored by Kristi McClamroch, PhD, MPH, Alison L. Drake, PhD, MPH, and Ifeoma Udoh, PhD

Fall and winter are normally times for some of our favorite holidays and traditions. Whether you celebrate Dia de los Muertos, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Diwali, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, or many others, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how to plan your holiday activities this year to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. We have already seen summer holidays linked to increased Covid-19 cases, and we can expect a similar trend this fall and winter. Even if holiday celebrations have to look a little different this year, it is still possible to find safe ways to connect with the people you love.

We are a group of three epidemiologists and a medical anthropologist (who are also moms) trying our best to figure out the holiday season for our families. We wrote this piece as a result — to clarify that lots of holiday activities are already safe, some can be made safer, and some will need to be replaced with creative alternatives. We’ll offer some overall guidelines and suggestions for the season and discuss recommendations for Halloween specifically.

Not all strategies to reduce Covid-19 risk will work for you during the holidays. The best approach is to determine which strategies will work and layer as many of them as you can. Be sure to choose the safest options when you’re around people most vulnerable to Covid-19 and people most likely to have been exposed, like essential workers or those from geographic areas with high infection rates. Set reasonable expectations for yourself, your friends, and your family. And be flexible, as plans may have to change. Of course, if anyone in your household is sick, has had a Covid-19 exposure, or is waiting on a Covid-19 test, it is essential to put all celebrations on hold for the whole household.

Before you decide to travel, find out how many new cases are being reported — both in areas where you live and areas where you are going.

The latest science shows that while Covid-19 can be spread by touching common items, most Covid-19 is spread through the air. This is especially true indoors. This means our best defenses include wearing masks (even in our homes sometimes), increasing ventilation with fresh air, reducing the amount of time we are physically together with others, reducing the number of people we visit during the holidays, increasing distance between people (especially indoors), and hand-washing.

The holidays are busy travel times. And right now, any travel presents some risk of contracting Covid-19. Even if you’re not planning a big trip, you may be making plans to visit with family and friends. Before you decide to travel, find out how many new cases are being reported — both in areas where you live and areas where you are going.

Remember to look up quarantine rules for both your home and your destination. Many locations require quarantines after you travel and having to stay home — and miss work — for two weeks following a trip may change your plans. This guide describes how to quarantine. Some states may also require a Covid-19 test when you arrive. It’s important to remember that testing is not foolproof, as false negatives are possible.

If you’re part of a pod, discuss with your pod mates expectations for the holidays and how to safely rejoin a pod after you visit with others.

If you’ve decided that traveling and visiting family and friends are still important to you, here are some ways to reduce your risk.

Planes, trains, and buses

  • Pick transportation that is less crowded, offers fewer tickets for sale, or intentionally keeps seats open.
  • Pick transportation that has good ventilation, like filters on airplanes or open windows on buses.
  • Reduce your travel time — choose shorter routes.
  • Travel off-peak to avoid crowds.
  • Wear a mask throughout your travel, including in the terminal, waiting areas, and restrooms.
  • Stay as far as possible from people outside of your travel group throughout your trip.
  • Bring your own snacks and drinks to avoid crowded stores or restaurants.
  • Bring hand sanitizer and wipes. Wash your hands frequently.
  • Advocate for yourself and/or ask staff for help if others aren’t wearing masks or keeping their distance.

Staying with family/friends

Staying at other people’s houses makes for increased contact and presents unique risks. This even applies to college students returning to their family home from dorms or other roommate situations. When transitioning from one living situation to another, it is critical to consider how many people you have recently interacted with, how safe those interactions were (whether they were masked, outdoors, etc.), and how many new Covid-19 cases are in your area. The following guidelines are worth following to ensure safety.

  • Quarantine hosts AND guests for 10 to 14 days (or as many as you can) prior to the trip.
  • Wear masks inside.
  • Have separate sleeping and bathroom areas for guests.
  • Eat meals sitting as far from one another as possible, outside, or with windows open.
  • Consider camping or RV alternatives

Hotels and motels

  • Decline or limit cleaning services.
  • Disinfect common surfaces — door knobs, phones, and remotes.
  • Avoid crowds in the lobby, breakfast area, gym, or hot tub.
  • Open windows if possible to increase ventilation.

Meals and parties

  • Wear masks when not eating.
  • Celebrate outside if possible; be creative about heaters, warm drinks, and lots of blankets.
  • Open windows and doors.
  • Space out guests as much as possible.
  • Make hand sanitizer widely available.
  • Serve individual portions rather than sharing appetizers or snacks.
  • Consider hosts and guests quarantining for 10 to 14 days (ideally) before coming together.
  • Shorten how much time is spent together.
  • Limit the number of people you spend the holidays with.
  • Avoid singing or shouting, especially in close quarters.
  • If you choose to drink, be aware that alcohol may make you less vigilant, so think ahead about how to stick with your Covid-19 prevention plan.

Religious and faith-based services

For many holidays, attending church or temple — or even hosting ceremonies at home — is an essential component. Since being indoors and singing are both high-risk activities, here are some ways to worship more safely.

  • Wear masks, especially when singing.
  • Celebrate outside.
  • Open windows or doors when possible.
  • Attend virtual or online services.

Safer activities and holiday alternatives

  • Stay home. Celebrating with the members of only your household will reduce almost all risks mentioned above.
  • Celebrate with your pod. If you’ve already been exposed to a few other families, consider keeping that pod together for the holidays.
  • Decorate. This is a safe way to show your holiday spirit to your whole neighborhood. Even better, send homemade decorations to friends and family as a way of connecting.
  • Make or decorate holiday masks.
  • Consider drive-by celebrations.
  • Drop off plates of food or desserts for loved ones.
  • Send or drop off gifts and cards.
  • Connect online.
  • Experiment with Zoom caroling.
  • Share favorite recipes and enjoy a virtual dinner.
  • Record kids performing holiday plays and songs at home.
  • Hold virtual holiday movie nights.

Halloween

Gathering in large groups and talking with people outside your household are probably the two riskiest Halloween behaviors. Getting Covid-19 from touching candy wrappers could happen, but we know that most Covid-19 is spread through the air. Here are some strategies you can use to stay safe during Halloween.

Trick/trunk-or-treating

  • Wear masks. Children should not wear two masks at the same time because that could make it hard to breathe; you may need to alter their costume if it includes a mask.
  • Stay with your pod or household and keep your distance from other groups.
  • Skip blocks/houses/trunks that are crowded.
  • Say “trick or treat” from a distance — avoid going up to the door and having repeat close encounters.
  • Avoid handing candy directly to kids — leave out a bucket or bowl and let kids pick their own (asking them to only touch what they take); make candy drop tubes or snack bags; decorate your yard with candy decorations for kids to pick themselves; or set up a spooky table of treats.
  • Sanitize hands frequently to keep candy germ free — and definitely sanitize hands before snacking.
  • Discuss expectations with children — consider that even some older children might need a chaperone this year.

Haunted houses and pumpkin patches

  • Choose outside locations with lots of space.
  • Wear masks, especially where there is yelling and shouting.
  • Avoid rides and other activities if you can’t maintain distance from other groups.
  • Consider safer activities and holiday alternatives including decorating and carving pumpkins, candy hunts with your household or pod, costume parades with masks and social distancing, virtual costume contests, making Halloween crafts with your pod, and spooky scavenger hunts.

Remember, not all of these strategies will work for you. Focus on the ones that will work. If you don’t feel safe, we hope you opt to stay home or speak up, whether that means asking someone on the airplane to put their mask on or asking Grandma to open the dining room windows.

As public health workers and mothers ourselves, we understand the need to find ways to protect yourself, your friends, and your family from Covid-19 while making sure the holidays are still a special time full of memories.

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