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25th November, 202011 min read

Can you celebrate the holidays with others safely during the coronavirus pandemic?

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Georgina Newman
Last reviewed: 25/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Recent and continuing lockdowns or restrictions may have kept you apart from family and friends for many months. This may make spending time with loved ones over the holidays all the more important this year.

So as events like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa approach, you may be wondering if you can celebrate together.

This will depend on what restrictions are in place in your country or region over the holiday season. But even if local guidelines allow festive gatherings, how you celebrate will likely be very different this year.

Sally Bloomfield, Honorary Professor at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, shares her advice on what to keep in mind to stay safe while celebrating.

Can I host family and friends over the holidays?

The safest way to host a celebration over the holidays is to do it virtually, using a platform like Zoom or Houseparty, says Bloomfield.

If you host an in-person event and invite people outside your household, this increases your risk of catching or spreading the virus. This risk may be higher still if you invite people who will be travelling from different places, especially if they travel from areas where coronavirus cases are higher.

“Everytime we decide to have human to human contact, be it at school, work, family or leisure, some of these contacts will result in a new infection, and every time we choose not to, it decreases that risk,” says Bloomfield.

So the more people you invite, the higher the risk that someone has the virus (they may have it but not have symptoms).

“We can help reduce the risk by mask wearing and hand washing, but we can’t eliminate it — even if the contact is outdoors. Social distancing, preferably 2 metres, is also key,” she adds.

But if it’s important to you to see family and friends over this period, and if local guidance allows it, there are a range of things you can do to try and minimise the risk.

How to stay safe if you host family and friends

If you host family and friends from outside your household, the same rules of keeping a distance, wearing a face covering and washing your hands regularly still apply.

But Bloomfield says “we need to become able to adapt it to our daily lives rather than asking ‘what can I or can I not do?’ and waiting to be given instructions.”

Bloomfield recommends you:

  • limit the number of people you invite (check local guidelines around how many people can gather who aren’t in the same household)
  • only see people from outside your household if it’s really necessary. For example, you may know someone who lives alone and needs interaction to help support their mental wellbeing
  • socialise outdoors — if this isn’t possible, open windows and doors to allow maximum ventilation
  • limit how long you socialise for — this will lower the risk of virus spread
  • ask everyone to observe social distancing (keep a 2-metre distance from others where possible)
  • provide hand sanitiser (make sure it’s at least 60% alcohol) and ask everyone to apply it at the door
  • wear face masks when indoors — this reduces the risk of the wearer spreading the virus to others, but also provides some protection for them
  • disinfect surfaces that people frequently touch — if an infected person touches a surface that other people touch and then touch their face, they could catch the virus

You should not invite anyone who’s diagnosed with the virus or has symptoms.

Anyone at risk of getting very ill if they get the virus should also not attend — so always check this information with your guests before the day. If they are concerned, advise them to discuss with a doctor. You could always arrange a video chat with them during the event so they can feel part of the celebrations.

Virtual chats and online meetings remain the only truly safe way to celebrate with family and friends outside your household, Bloomfield says. “All social contact carries a risk.”

“It’s impossible to say what the precise impact of holiday events might be, but these will all contribute to producing an increase in the level of infection in the community which could lead to further lockdowns. It’s not about whether a particular activity is safe, it’s about making hard choices about what is most important,” she adds.

How to safely manage food and drink

The virus doesn’t appear to be spread directly through serving, handling or eating food. But you can catch the virus by touching an item of food or food packaging, or a cooking utensil that’s contaminated with the virus, and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

If you’re hosting an event and you’re serving food and drinks, you could ask guests to bring their own food and drink. You should also try to:

  • wear a mask while you prepare and serve food if it’s to be eaten by people outside your household. It may be easier for 1 person to prepare or serve food
  • prevent guests from going in and out of food preparation areas
  • ask everyone to wash their hands with soap before and after eating
  • wash plates, cups, glasses and cutlery in a dishwasher or in hot soapy water straight after the event

What to do before you visit family and friends

If you do decide to visit family or friends, or another household over the holiday period, Dr Bharat Pankhania, Senior Clinical Lecturer at University of Exeter Medical School, recommends reminding yourself of how the virus works.

“If you understand how the virus affects people, this enables you to make better, more empowered decisions when weighing up risk.”

Pankhania suggests you ask yourself if the people you’re visiting are safe for you to interact with. Think about:

  • the people you’re going to be mixing with
  • the environment you’re going to be in

This means you should consider if the people you’re intending to visit have been in contact with a lot of other people. If they have, this may increase your risk of exposure to the virus. If the house or restaurant you’re meeting in is small, cramped or crowded, this will also increase your risk.

“You should make the assessment yourself. When assessing the environment, fewer people in an outdoor setting will be safer than a lot of people in an indoor setting. If you can minimise interactions with other people you’re going to be in a better place,” he adds.

Once you’ve assessed the risk involved, only then make a decision about going, Pankhania advises.

Should I self-isolate before visiting family and friends?

You may want to consider if you should self-isolate for 10 to 14 days before visiting family and friends, particularly anyone more vulnerable to coronavirus. Be guided by the restrictions and rules where you live, but otherwise you shouldn’t visit others if:

  • you have symptoms of coronavirus, such as an ongoing cough
  • you're waiting for the results of a coronavirus test
  • someone in your household has tested positive for the virus

Can I travel to visit family and friends over the holidays?

Travelling to see or stay with family or friends increases your risk of catching or spreading the virus, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying at home to help keep yourself and others safe.

If you do need to travel during the holiday season, check the status of the place you’re travelling to and be guided by any restrictions in your region or country.

Staying at home over the holidays may be the best way to stay safe, but may not be best for your mental wellbeing. After a difficult year for many people as a result of coronavirus, it’s natural to want to celebrate with family and friends in person.

If you do decide to travel, Pankhania suggests you map out your journey from start to finish and think where the risk points on that journey are.

For example, a risk point might be travelling through a busy airport or using public loos in a station. You should then take steps to minimise those risk points. This could be limiting the amount of time you spend there, or wearing a face mask throughout your time there.

Can I stay overnight?

If any of the people you plan to visit are at higher risk of becoming badly ill if they catch the virus, it will be safer not to stay overnight. You should make your own assessment of the risks involved as recommended above, or discuss any concerns with a doctor.

If you do travel to someone’s home and know it would be easier to spend the night, you should:

  • take your own towels and other laundry
  • always wear a mask inside the house except when drinking, eating or sleeping
  • wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds when you arrive
  • follow social distancing, especially when indoors
  • open windows to improve ventilation
  • spend as much time outdoors as possible

It may also be useful for you and your hosts to put a plan in place should anyone start presenting symptoms of coronavirus, such as a cough or fever.

If someone does fall ill — either during or after the event — make sure everyone who attended is aware so they can take appropriate steps, such as self-isolate, get tested for coronavirus and/or seek medical attention.

How to stay safe after celebrating

If you attend or host an event in person, it may be best to take precautions in the days afterwards, especially if you were around a lot of people in an indoor setting.

For 14 days after the event, the CDC recommends you:

  • stay at home and limit contact with other people
  • don’t meet in person with anyone considered more vulnerable to the effects of the virus, such as people aged over 70, people having chemotherapy and those with an existing health condition, like diabetes
  • get tested for the virus

You should also make sure it's easy for the host to contact you and let you know if anyone from the event gets symptoms.

Ways to celebrate at home

It’s generally considered safe to enjoy a meal or celebrations at home with people in your own household.

If you're staying at home, you may find it helpful to look on the holidays as an opportunity rather than a disappointment at not being able to spend time in person with everyone you want to. For example, you may be able to:

  • create new games and experiences this year that you carry through into future holiday celebrations
  • think about the holiday traditions you and your loved ones cherish the most, then find ways to recreate them using virtual tools and video platforms — a Christmas family quiz, for example, can be done via video
  • cook traditional family treats and distribute them among family and friends in a way that limits person-to-person contact

There may also be more opportunities to connect online with family and friends who you don’t usually see because they live abroad.

This can all help to take your mind off the activities you may have to miss out on this year and instead focus on ones you’re creating.

Key points

  • the safest way to celebrate with loved ones over the holidays is to do it virtually using video platforms like Zoom, or celebrate at home with members of your household
  • if you host an event and invite people from outside your household, take safety measures into account, such as wearing masks, keeping a distance and washing your hands regularly
  • if you travel to celebrate with other people, this increases your risk of catching or spreading the virus. Make your own assessment of the people you’ll be meeting and the environment you’ll be in
  • if you celebrate with others outside your household, you should stay at home, where possible, for 14 days after the event and limit contact with others
  • try to look on the holidays as an opportunity to create new experiences and find new ways of celebrating the traditions you love with the people you love
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