COVID Holidays

FAQs about Celebrating the Holidays with COVID-19
From the Epidemiology COVID-19 Response Corps

The holidays are more different than ever this year given the COVID-19 pandemic. The Epidemiology COVID-19 Response Corps at Boston University in collaboration with epidemiologists from the University of Alabama, Birmingham and University of Miami have compiled and answered the most frequently asked questions they’ve received about how to safely plan for the holiday season this year. 

1. Are the holidays canceled this year?

No, but they will look different from normal and we need to be flexible, because what is safest to do may change with short notice.

COVID is a serious disease. It has the capacity to kill people, even those who don’t seem to fit into a high-risk category. And it has the capacity to create lingering health problems in those who survive it. Our goal is to keep our holiday activities from causing illness in our loved ones and ourselves. Rather than forgoing our celebrations altogether, we may be able to find ways to make them much safer.

Some important differences you can expect are that parties and events will need to be smaller, sticking to your closest friends and family members, and everyone will need to be wearing masks.

2. How do I have a safer COVID holiday?

Everything we do together these upcoming months may involve some risk, but we can always find ways to make our celebrations safer. Start by thinking about which parts of your normal holiday celebrations are the most important to you and your family. These are the pieces you will want to try to keep as normal as possible.

Once you’ve made a list of what you’d like to do, and who you want to do it with, the next step is to assess how risky each activity is and plan a way to make it safer. There are many good activity risk calculators that can help you decide (see <How do assess risk?>).

To decide how to make an activity safer, think about the 4 key dimensions of COVID risk:

  • People: Who will be there? Prioritize people who are in your household, pod or bubble, avoid strangers, and keep the total number of people as low as possible. When choosing who to celebrate with, prioritize people who’ve been taking similar COVID precautions as you have so that you aren’t increasing your, or their, risk.
  • Place: Where will the event be? Stay outdoors as much as possible and, if you must be indoors, choose areas with good ventilation (opening doors and windows can help). 
  • Time: How much time are you spending with people? Reduce risk at an event by shortening the amount of time you spend with others, especially if you are indoors.
  • Space: How much personal space is available and can you distance? At minimum, people should be staying 6 feet apart, but remember that when singing, yelling, laughing, or talking loudly 6 feet may be too close. More distance is safer.  And wearing masks (over mouth and nose) helps in all situations, especially those that are indoors.

Remember, not all change is bad! This year is the perfect year to skip the parts of your holiday celebration that normally feel like a chore. Hate turkey? Skip it and blame COVID! How about a backyard BBQ instead? Or street tacos!

3. Who needs to take special precautions around the holidays?

We all do, but in particular people with health conditions, folks who are older, those who have jobs that require a lot of public interactions, and those who are otherwise at high risk for COVID may not be able to participate in group events. If you or your loved ones fall into these groups, help stay connected by incorporating remote or virtual elements into your celebrations, or schedule time to see these individuals one-on-one or in very small groups, preferably in outdoor settings. 

4. What’s the deal with masks?

COVID spreads when someone who is infected exhales particles that contain the virus and these particles come in contact with another person’s eyes, mouth, or nose, either directly or via surfaces. Masks help reduce transmission by catching particles that you are breathing out, and by stopping particles you might be breathing in. Your holiday gathering will be safest if everyone is wearing masks over their nose and mouth, because people can be infected even when they don’t feel or look sick. Whether you’re inside or outside, ask everyone to keep their masks on as much as possible.

5. It’s one thing to gather together with masks, but we can’t eat with our masks on.  How can we minimize our risks when sharing holiday meals? 

When eating or drinking together, masks obviously have to come off at least for a little while. For this reason, you may want to skip the meal entirely. But if you are planning a meal with guests from outside your household, replace masks with physical distancing while you eat. 

At minimum, try seating people every other seat. Even better, set up multiple tables, maybe in a few different rooms, so that people can spread out more. Additionally, if you are able to have an outdoor gathering or good ventilation (i.e. open windows), this will reduce your risk. 

Don’t forget that shared objects can transmit the virus, so it’s a good idea to designate one person as the food server instead of having everyone touch the same serving spoons to get their own food. 

6. What precautions should I take to make indoors events safer?

Indoor spaces are more risky than outdoor spaces because the indoor spaces are enclosed. If you need to be indoors for your celebrations, you can lower the risk by increasing airflow. Open up windows, or external doors. Even a few open windows in a part of the house people aren’t frequenting can help with air circulation. Make sure internal doors are open so that there’s good airflow through the home or building. 

Masks are also extra important for indoor gatherings. Ask everyone to wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking. 

7. What precautions should I take to make outdoors events safer?

Outdoors spaces are safer than indoors spaces, but they aren’t completely risk free. In addition to COVID transmission, outdoors spaces may be quite cold so it’s important to think ahead. Remember that masks and distancing are still needed outdoors, and plan to have heaters, warm drinks, or ask guests to bring blankets. 

If there’s a chance of snow or rain, you can still be outdoors if you have access to a space with a covered roof. If you’re thinking about setting up a large tent, remember that it’s important to keep the walls open for air circulation — otherwise, you’re basically indoors!

8. How do I talk to friends and family members about COVID and the holidays?

It can feel difficult to talk about safety with friends and family members, but it is so important to a safe COVID holiday. Having these conversations can be easier if you start by acknowledging that this may be an awkward conversation. 

It’s also important to talk to friends and family about what activities they have been or are planning to do before your celebration. Think about how much risk you are comfortable with, and if that doesn’t match up with what other people are doing, share your concerns. Remember that if people don’t feel comfortable attending celebrations this year, it’s not because of you or your relationship. It’s all because of COVID!

Explaining the reasons behind your plans can help your friends and family members understand why it is important for them to do. For example, try explaining how masks work and that wearing masks are about protecting each other and not just about following rules.

9. If I plan to travel for the holidays, when should I get tested? When should I quarantine?

Ideally, you would quarantine upon arrival from travel and get tested 2-4 days later –to capture an infection acquired during your travels–but also complete the recommended full 14-day quarantine. This is because testing doesn’t always catch when someone may be positive for the virus. In most cases, you will not be able to do that, so you can get tested upon arrival (PCR testing preferred), and quarantine if time allows because it can take up to 14 days to test positive after exposure to the virus. 

For many, quarantining on arrival isn’t going to be feasible, so another alternative is to do your 14 day quarantine at home before you travel. Remember that this doesn’t guarantee you won’t be infected during your trip though, so make sure to be careful when you travel. See below for tips on how to travel safer.

Whether or not you have time for quarantine, consider adhering to the following recommendations: at your destination, prioritize outdoor activities, wear a mask and prioritize good ventilation indoors, wash your hands often, and keep your distance from others. 

Remember that if you are traveling, many countries and states have requirements about quarantine and testing for visitors. Check the regulations both at home and at your destination before traveling. 

See here for a helpful visual of the timeline from exposure to test results. 

10. What do my test results mean?

If you do decide to get a COVID test and the result is positive, you need to follow CDC isolation protocols. This means staying home, not having house guests or visitors, and staying as much as possible away from your household members for at least 10 days after the test date. If you feel sick, continue to isolate after those 10 days until you haven’t had a fever or taken any fever-reducing medicines (including acetaminophen) for at least 24 hours. 

If your COVID test is negative, this does not mean that you aren’t infected. Because it takes a little while to get test results, you could have become infected since you took the test. It’s also possible for the test to say you are negative early in an infection when your virus level is low. If you’ve had a negative test, you should still consider quarantine before seeing friends and family, and make sure to continue wearing a mask and practicing good hand hygiene (wash your hands for 20 seconds, and don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth).

11. Do I need to quarantine even if I’m not traveling?

One of the best ways to reduce the chances of infection spreading at a holiday celebration is for everyone who attends to quarantine for 14 days beforehand. This means staying at home and not having any visitors or guests over, and avoiding interactions with other people. Anyone who feels sick during those 14 days should speak to their doctor, consider getting a COVID test, and not attend the holiday celebration. This will minimize the chances that anyone who attends is infectious.

Another option is to quarantine for up to 14 days after a holiday celebration. Quarantining after a celebration doesn’t help prevent infection at the celebration but it helps ensure that anyone who was infected there doesn’t transmit infection to other people. 

12. Is it important to get my flu shot? Even if I don’t plan on traveling?

Absolutely! As we move into flu season, we are facing the potential spread of another infectious disease that targets our lungs. Getting your flu shot will not only help protect you and your loved ones from the flu, but reducing the spread of the flu may help to ensure that our health systems are not overrun with additional patients and that doctors have to less often face the challenge of differentiating between flu and covid (which often have some similar symptoms).

13. How do I maximize safety while traveling during the pandemic?

Remember, the safest situation is to stay home for the holidays with your household members. However, we understand that people may travel during the winter holidays.

For any setting, the same principles apply: 

  • Wear a mask
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Watch one’s distance from others (especially if not in your household)
  • Avoiding crowds
  • Avoiding close contact
  • Avoiding closed (aka indoor) spaces

The CDC currently has information about the risks of infection for different modes of travel. Below is a quick summary of what increases risk of exposure for each mode of transportation:

  • Airplane
    • Most risk is associated with being in the airport and ridesharing to the airport, as this can expose you to people outside your household in closed, poorly ventilated environments.
    • Air is filtered relatively well on flights themselves, but you may not be able to socially distance depending on the airline. Choose an airline that has committed to capacity restrictions and requires all passengers to wear masks.
    • If COVID transmission increases in your community or your destination, or as you perceive other increases in risk, you should be prepared to change your mind about any flight you book, even if you are about to board the plane.  And it may be helpful to know that many airlines have loosened or eliminated their cancellation fees.
  • Bus or train
    • Again, most risk is associated with being <6 feet from people outside your household in a closed, poorly ventilated environment.
  • Car and/or RV 
    • Most risk associated with stopping at rest stops and other public places where you’ll be exposed to those outside your household.
14. How do I generally assess my risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19?

    There are many online resources to help determine your risk:

    You can also consider your risk on a scale like the one below: 

    Finally, make sure to check out your local public health department for information on COVID-19 rates in your area.

    15. What are alternatives to gathering for the holidays? It is family tradition to gather every year. What are creative ways to do this safely?

    Consider video chat platforms including: Zoom, Google Hangout, and Facetime. Outdoor meet ups with 1-2 other people (maybe masked and not eating or drinking) are safest ways to gather.

    Some other creative ideas include:

    • Hold an outdoor gift exchange / meal if weather permits and/or you have access to outdoor heaters. 
    • If you and your loved ones live in separate households, but near each other, holding a “car parade” might be a fun way to gather safely.
    • Organize to make the same meal as family members in different households, and then video conference them during the meal. 
    • Video conferences during gift opening sessions can also include those outside your household.
    16. Can holiday packages be sent safely to my loved ones? How long does the virus last on surfaces?

    The USPS is working hard to protect Americans by requiring employees to wear face coverings and conducting updated cleaning protocols consistent with CDC guidelines. Remember that COVID-19 is spread mostly through respiratory droplets that stay in the air from a person who has been infected with the virus. 

    However, you can be extra safe with mailed packages by:

    • Avoiding contact with your mail carrier
    • Washing hands for at least 20 seconds after touching new packages
    • Removing and disposing of outer packaging immediately
    • Avoid touching your face, eyes, mouth, and/or nose after touching packages

    We understand that the holidays are an important time for all, and the pandemic has separated us from friends and family for a long time. Though it is safest to stay home, you can take proper measures to decrease the spread if you do decide to gather. Stay safe and happy holidays!