Preparing for the Holidays During a Pandemic

The hallmark of most holidays from Diwali and Thanksgiving to Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanza is gathering amongst friends and loved ones—often to share a meal and merriment. However, this year, gathering with others during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic brings significant risks. So how can you celebrate the holidays safely?

The experts say:

The three primary factors that affect your risk of contracting COVID-19 in a social setting are the size of the gathering, how much time you’ll be spending with others, and what kind of space you’re in, says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention.

Although there are no set rules on exactly how many people is “safe,” local regulations can provide some parameters.

Avoid gatherings with others outside your immediate family if possible. If not, try to keep them outdoors and distanced. You have a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 being outdoors because fresh air dilutes the virus, and you have the space to move more freely and keep distant from others.

“Outdoors is better than inside,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “If you are indoors, gather in larger spaces where people can spread out as opposed to smaller, close quarters.”

Whether you are indoors or outdoors, be sure to wear a mask if you will be in close proximity to others. “If you’re sitting or standing talking to someone and you want to be a little closer and have a more intimate conversation, wearing your mask is the key prevention strategy,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.

Factors to consider:

– If gathering indoors, how big is the space? Make sure there is enough space that you can stay 6 to 10 feet apart from anyone else to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

– When determining how many people to include, think in terms of households. “Each household has been spending so much time as a unit together. Being mindful about how many new households are mixing would be another way to think about this,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.

– If you gather indoors, how long will you be together and how many people will be in attendance? The amount of time and number of people attending makes a difference. “Every additional person or household that’s invited is another potential risk to you as you are to them,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “Smaller gatherings over shorter amounts of time are safer.”

– Be aware of your health and wellness on days when you have an activity planned, and make sure that you’re only going out or hosting a gathering when you’re feeling well.

– Is anyone in your household at high risk for coronavirus complications? This group includes people older than 65 and anyone with a serious underlying medical condition, such as diabetes or heart disease. Gathering with anyone outside your immediate family may not be a good idea if anyone in your household is considered high-risk.

Creative solutions to try:

While it may look and feel different this year, with some planning, creativity and managing expectations, you still can find ways to celebrate the holidays with loved ones, says UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD.

“I would urge individuals to try to understand what is it about a holiday tradition that provides meaning or joy, and while it may require inventiveness, thinking outside the box, and more energy, we can still find other ways to get to that core aspect of joy or meaning in the tradition,” Dr. Charguia says.

Here are some ways you can still enjoy some holiday traditions safely:

  • Instead of gathering around food, which makes mask wearing difficult, consider gathering to play a game, make crafts or decorate the Christmas tree. Everyone can keep masks on while enjoying time together.
  • Plan a group virtual movie night using apps such as Discord and Netflix Party to watch a holiday classic with family and friends across the country.
  • Host a work friend cookie bake off using Zoom or FaceTime.
  • Many places of worship are offering services virtually or outdoors. Contact your place of worship to find out what is available.
  • Conduct your holiday gift browsing online and then just run into the store, if needed, to pick up your items in person.

“You can still have fun and make connections that are meaningful to you, but to be safer you’ll need to think about how to do that on a smaller scale or in a virtual way,” says Dr. Sickbert-Bennett.

Find the silver lining:

While holidays and time with family can bring joy, they also can cause stress—especially if they are filled with long to-do lists, travel and numerous social obligations. This year, embrace the slower pace and savor the extra time you may have with those closest to you.

“This may be the year to try something new that you never had time to do before,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.

Also know it’s okay to feel sad that the holidays will be different for most of us this year. As you feel frustrated or disillusioned, remember these are unprecedented times. There is no playbook for how to handle this new normal, so it’s important to be gentle with yourself—and others.

“This is a time of the year, pre-pandemic, that often has its own mental health challenges, and the risk is high for those to be compounded,” Dr. Charguia says. “We’re going to feel disappointed at times. Allow yourself that time and space to acknowledge those feelings. If you feel more stuck in those feelings, I would then recommend to reach out to others in your world and not be alone with difficult feelings. Friends, loved ones, a faith leader or a mental health professional can be resources to draw upon.”

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.