Family doing a video call at Thanksgiving table As COVID-19 resurges across the United States, it’s time to think about how we can adapt our holiday traditions to stay safe while we celebrate. With transmission rates in the U.S. reaching historic highs, it’s more important than ever to remain vigilant to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Many of your family traditions can continue — albeit in a slightly different way this year. It’s up to you to normalize the changes so your family can enjoy the holidays, celebrate together, and remain safer from COVID-19.

Tips for in-person holiday gatherings

If you and your family decide to have an in-person holiday event this year — despite the potential risks — there are some ways you make your event safer for participants.

Experts from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health offer some suggestions to help your family make the holidays as safe — and festive — as possible.

Keep in-person gatherings small

Holiday gathering should be limited to include only people from your household. If you will have adult children or parents who will be joining your household for the winter holidays, ask everyone to self-quarantine for at least 10 days before the event (7 days with a negative COVID test) and if they exhibit any signs of illness, to stay home.

This is especially important for guests who will be taking flights or long bus/train rides home for the holidays; these types of travel may increase the risk of potential COVID exposures your loved ones have before they join your celebration. Quarantines should occur AFTER traveling and BEFORE interacting with others at your celebration to be safest.

Skip physical contact

While it may have been a few months since you’ve seen some family members, now is not the time for hugs, kisses and handshakes with people who don’t live with you. Getting too close to people outside your household increases everyone’s chances of getting COVID-19. Older relatives and those with compromised immune systems may be particularly vulnerable, but anyone can catch COVID-19. If we work together, we can limit our exposure.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

The safest way to approach the holidays is to not gather with people outside your household. While it is discouraged by the CDC and many local, regional and national health experts, if you must travel this holiday season, please follow as many safety precautions as you can, including: keep physically distant from others, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently.

If you are choosing to host or attend an in-person gathering, please follow as many safety practices as you can to lower risk:

  • Limit the number of guests, especially if any or all of your event must be held indoors.
  • Consider hosting the dinner portion of your event outdoors. Set up smaller tables — or staggered seating — where individual households can eat together with their masks off and yet remain physically distant from others who don’t live with them. If not possible to have dinner outside, try having predinner snacks and drinks outside.
  • Strongly encourage all guests to wear their masks at all times except when actively eating or drinking.
  • Designate one person (wearing a face mask and gloves) to serve the food or place it on each plate. By having only one person serving the food, cross-contamination on utensils and serving dishes can be minimized.
  • Cover food when it is not actively being served. This serves double-duty: keeping food warm, while also avoiding any nearby germs.
  • Encourage guests to clean up after themselves and their immediate family. This limits the number of people touching potentially contaminated items. Consider disposable items like utensils and napkins that can be thrown away after the meal.
  • Be aware that drinking alcohol lowers inhibitions and may make guests become lax with masking and social distancing recommendations. Older youth can help adults remember to maintain adherence to COVID precautions.

Expanding your holiday options

Going home for the holidays may be difficult this year, but think about the new possibilities it opens up! If you can’t be with the ones you love in person, consider these alternatives to in-person holiday gatherings.

Eat together virtually

Set up your phone, tablet or computer at a spot at your holiday table and encourage your family and friends to connect via video. It won’t be exactly the same as being together, but you will still be able to experience familiar sights and sounds. Coupled with tasting and smelling traditional foods, the full experience will help you remember past holidays together and allow you to make plans for future gatherings. If you live close to dear friends or family, consider baking an extra pie or special dish so your family can be presented at your loved ones’ meal.

Share recipes before the meal

Encourage your family and friends to share recipes they’ve made or enjoyed at previous family gatherings. Everyone can try a few new recipes or old standbys on the day of the celebration and share their results virtually. Even if your recipe turns out to be a disaster, show your family and taste test it. It may look terrible, but taste great!

Honor family traditions

Think about your family’s holiday gatherings. Are there small traditions you can still do virtually? Perhaps saying grace together or making a toast. How about watching football together or a holiday parade on TV? Honor past traditions and consider adding new ones that can be practiced virtually this year, but may continue to be impactful in future, in-person gatherings.

A few possible discussion topics: What are you grateful for this year? How do you plan to help someone in the year ahead? What do you hope will happen – personally, nationally or globally – by the next time you can get together in person?

The holidays will certainly be challenging for many this year, but by working together and caring for each other, we can help ensure many more holidays together.

Effective masking illustration Masking Do’s and Don’ts

Want to protect yourself during COVID’s winter resurgence? Make sure you use effective masks (2 layers) and wear them covering both your nose and mouth.

Learn More.

Susan E. Coffin, MD, MPH, is an Attending Physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is an expert in pandemic influenzas.

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