With COVID-19 Still a Risk, People Should Be Cautious About Holiday Gatherings
Getting together at the holidays could lead to increased cases and deaths—and a potentially longer pandemic. There are, of course, exceptions—such as visiting elderly family members from a safe distance—but Americans should carefully gauge the risks when making this decision.
Last updated on December 18, 2020
Evidence shows even small gatherings can cause spikes in coronavirus cases and deaths. Holiday parties now could mean more COVID cases later—and possibly a higher death rate if there is a surge in new cases.
Getting together with a few close family members might seem like no big deal, but on a national scale, it could be devastating. And we could be dealing with the fallout from holiday parties for weeks or even months to come. Past examples show spikes in cases aren’t exclusive to large gatherings; even smaller gatherings risk spread. Especially when alcohol is involved and partygoers feel comfortable enough to let down their guard, the risk is even higher. Numerous recent examples have proved this increased risk: The United States saw a spike in COVID-19 cases after Labor Day, and many states are currently experiencing a wave of new cases following Thanksgiving gatherings. A spike in cases—especially given the recent post-Thanksgiving wave—has the potential to be devastating to hospitals. Therefore, holiday gatherings could lead to hospital overload. Even before Thanksgiving, many hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots were reaching a breaking point. "We have legitimate reason to be very, very concerned about our health system at a national level," Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University who studies hospital surge capacity, told NPR in mid-November.
It's simple to avoid holiday gatherings. Some Americans might insist they must get together for the holidays, but that's just not true for most people. There are myriad simple ways to connect with loved ones virtually or from a safe distance.
There are a multitude of ways to still “see” each other virtually. New technology—as well as calling and texting—allows families to connect without necessitating physical proximity. It may even make it easier for long-distance family members to get in on the festivities.
From Zoom, to FaceTime, to House Party, there are so many ways to "see" family and friends virtually during this holiday season. People do not need to be physically in the same room to enjoy each other's company. For some families that live far away from each other, a virtual holiday gathering may even be easier—not to mention less costly—than an in-person celebration. Instead of flying in from different cities, states, or even from different countries, everyone can safely meet up online. It might not be quite the same, but virtual gatherings still offer friends and family the opportunity to enjoy many of the same fun holiday activities—such as crafting, cooking, or even a family game night—that they'd do in person. Artists and writers have already created online formats for holiday celebrations, from holiday bingo to virtual holiday trivia.
Exchanging gifts doesn’t require physical proximity. People can buy their gifts online or ship them in advance. They can even leave gifts near loved ones' front doors, avoiding close contact.
Online shopping has made sending gifts easier than ever. Whether shopping for local books at Bookshop.org, or finding the perfect Christmas sweater on everything from local businesses' websites to Amazon, shoppers can safely buy and ship gifts to loved ones online. People can even do gift exchanges on Zoom or other online platforms. If everyone coordinates beforehand to deliver their gifts before Christmas, families can still enjoy opening their gifts "together." Depending on the weather, some Americans can get together for socially distanced, masked, outdoor gift exchanges. If everyone adheres to the rules, it's possible to keep physical distance and have an in-person gift exchange. For that to work, etiquette expert Lizzie Post suggests hosts be upfront about the rules with everyone, especially friends or family members who have been more lax about the Center for Disease Control's COVID-19 recommendations. "Everyone must wear a mask indoors; if not, they can stand outside and watch as everyone opens gifts around the fireplace!" Post told MarthaStewart.com.
Traditional holiday gatherings with large groups can be postponed until COVID-19's risk has passed. As difficult as it may be, waiting until the health landscape is safer to celebrate their favorite holidays might simply be the best solution at this time. But "not now" does not have to mean "never."
Big families can still celebrate the holidays together—just not right now. Prolong the holiday spirit by planning to have a celebration when the pandemic's risk has substantially abated or passed altogether. While it may be a disappointment, large family gatherings—such as big parties or dinners with extended family members or friends—are simply not a good idea right now. But canceling them now doesn't mean they must be canceled forever. People can tentatively plan a "Christmas in July" or simply put a "To Be Determined" on their big holiday soirées. These postponements may make the holiday season a little less jolly, but they can also give people a much-needed event to anticipate once COVID-19 is less of a threat. The CDC has been clear on the need to limit large gatherings. They wrote: "The more people an individual interacts with at a gathering and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the potential risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and COVID-19 spreading." There are several guides available online for people who feel uncomfortable having this necessary conversation with their families. The bottom line: be direct.
Gathering could prolong hardships caused by the pandemic. Since holiday get-togethers could cause another spike in COVID-19 cases, the pandemic's threat could last longer than necessary. And that prolonged threat could cause major issues around an already-struggling world.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says his colleagues across the nation are concerned a post-holiday surge in cases may necessitate more restrictions and even lockdowns—especially if the hospital capacity situation grows even more dire. Though social distancing, mask-wearing, lockdowns, and other restrictions are effective at preventing spread and could shorten the pandemic's lifespan, they exact a huge toll. The most obvious difficulty is the economic strain caused by restrictions. Around the world, workers and businesses are already suffering from closures, shortened hours, and fewer customers. Some businesses have even been forced to shutter permanently. Countries, cities, and destinations that rely on tourism are already facing economic crisis. A prolonged pandemic will prolong these already-critical financial issues and make economic recovery even more difficult. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on individuals, families, and communities. Depression is on the rise as people deal with unprecedented isolation, fears, and other stressors. Parents, children, and educators continue to grapple with social distancing in classrooms and virtual schooling. The politicization of the pandemic has resulted in increased polarization and even violence. The pandemic's impact on nearly every level has been enormous. The consequences of a post-holiday surge could be catastrophic.
The evidence is there: Gatherings substantially increase the risk of COVID-19 spread. With a winter surge already predicted, with hospitals already sounding the alarm about capacity, and with long waits for testing, test results, and a vaccine, people need to heed advice about avoiding gathering. A post-holiday surge will make an already-bad situation even worse. Simply avoiding holiday get-togethers could prevent that surge—and save lives.
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