As the 2020 holiday season draws near, there’s no doubt it’s lacking some of the usual holiday cheer and anticipation. The United States is swiftly approaching 300,000 deaths due to Covid-19. The daily case rate has catapulted in the last month across the country. Several states are returning to lockdown measures last embraced in the spring. And 10.7 million Americans are currently out of work, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) encourages all Americans to rethink their holiday gatherings in the month ahead, and gives out tips for celebrating safely.
It’s no wonder a recent Travelocity survey found that 60 percent of Americans have chosen to forgo traveling this holiday season. Also, one-third of those won’t be celebrating at all. But is giving up on the holidays the only option? Or is there a way to still make some festive memories, even without participating in the typical holiday festivities?
One of the treasured traditions many families engage in every year is bringing their kids to meet Santa. But this year, family physician Abisola Olulade said doing so may not be worth the risk. This is especially true if the visit takes place indoors and without masks or distancing.
“The higher the level of community transmission in an area, the higher the risk of Covid spreading when you interact with people outside your household,” Olulade explained. “Looking at the numbers right now is like looking at a fast-moving train wreck, and they continue to break all the wrong records. We don’t expect this to slow down by Christmas—we expect it to get worse.”
When you add in the fact that Santa is likely in the mall all day long, interacting with elves, parents, and every child who comes to see him, it’s fair to say no one should be sitting on his lap for pictures this year.
Still, there are ways to reduce some of the risk involved in this activity. Many traditional Santa destinations have already implemented safety protocols such as putting a mask on Santa, encouraging (and even enforcing) guests to wear masks as well, and placing Santa behind plexiglass so that kids can still talk to him and take pictures in front of him, but everyone is at a safe distance.
If you can find a Santa visit opportunity that includes all that, and takes place outdoors, you’d be in even better shape.
Board-certified pediatrician Amna Husain said that while shopping for presents is one of the central traditions for many families, doing so in-person inevitably increases the risk of exposure to Covid.
Many holiday shoppers have already recognized this, with preliminary numbers showing a big spike in online shopping this year. But as the economy continues to suffer and small businesses, especially, are struggling, some families may be hesitant to spend their money at big online retailers.
The good news is that many small, local businesses are aware fewer shoppers will be entering their stores this holiday season. They are implementing plans to help their customers place orders online or over the phone, with the availability of curbside pickup to help mitigate risks. By shopping this way, you can still support local and remain safe.
Husain also encouraged families to think of this as an opportunity to get creative with gift-giving.
“For example, parents may help their children make ‘home-made’ gifts such as craft items, hand written cards, baked goods, drawings or paintings, poems, and memory books,” she suggested.
Plenty of families have traditions that involve gathering in the weeks leading up to the holidays for events such as decorating gingerbread houses or making ornaments for animals à la Eve Bunting’s Night Tree.
Of course, participating in those gatherings this year (particularly if they take place indoors) probably isn’t the best idea.
“I would limit gathering with friends and family who are not in your immediate close-knit unit while cases are surging,” Husain said. “Consider limiting any in-person celebration to people who live in your household.”
Olulade agreed, saying that these types of gatherings are likely to involve laughing, talking, shouting, and drinking. “That’s when the rules of distancing and masking seem to start to break down.”
Decorating also often involves multiple people touching the same objects, which may facilitate the spread of COVID, Olulade explained. “With rising Covid case counts, getting infected at any gathering outside of your household may become not just a possibility but a probability.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to cancel completely.
“Celebrating virtually is the best thing,” Olulade said. “Just because you can’t do it in person doesn’t make it less special.”
Sure, we’re all suffering from Zoom fatigue at this point—but isn’t that still better than nothing?
Why not encourage everyone you would usually invite to set up their own decorating stations in their homes? Then you can either video conference during the decorating, or create a closed Facebook group for everyone involved to share pictures of their finished products. You could even make it a contest with voting and prizes to help increase the excitement surrounding this now slightly different event.
“You can also think of creative ways to share the experience remotely, such as creating gingerbread cookies and then dropping them off at friends’ doorsteps,” Husain suggested
Flying Home For the Holidays
If you traditionally hop on a plane and fly to wherever your family is for the holidays, it makes perfect sense that you might be yearning to do so this year. And for some families, skipping that trip may not even feel like an option—the familial pressure to be there is simply that great.
If that’s you, Olulade said the good news is flights may not be quite as dangerous as you think. “Most germs don’t spread easily on flights because the air circulates and is filtered,” she explained.
Recent research has backed this up, with a report from JAMA concluding, “The risk of contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train.”
But that doesn’t mean there is no risk at all. “You may have to sit within 6 feet of someone else and you may have had to wait in a crowded airport terminal or take public transportation to get there,” Olulade said. “It can be highly risky depending on how much Covid is spreading in an area.”
And it’s not just the getting there you have to worry about. Once “home” (wherever that may be), you then also have to consider possible exposure when visiting with the family and friends you traveled to see in the first place.
“Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others,” Husain said. “If you must travel, drive with family members in a private vehicle to avoid exposure to people outside your household if possible. Wear a mask when you leave your car (at gas stations and rest stops) and make meals ahead of time to avoid stops if possible.”
Attending Religious Services
Whether gathering for midnight mass or a synagogue service, Olulade called attending in-person religious services a highly risky choice.
“Super spreading events have happened especially when people are gathering and singing,” she said. “These things require increased expiratory effort, which can expel more droplets and, in turn, can lead to worse spread of Covid.”
For the same reason, she said caroling should be avoided this year.
Unfortunately, religious gatherings have been linked to several deaths as a result of Covid-spread, and the holiday season threatens to make those numbers worse if people insist on attending in-person.
The good news is: there are alternatives. Both Olulade and Husain recommend attending religious services virtually this year, eliminating the risk while allowing your family to still participate.
“These times, while restrictive, can provide an opportunity for families to be creative and focus on what is important, tapping into their inner strengths and resilience,” Husain said of finding ways to worship from home.
Remaining Vigilant This Holiday Season
While many families have formed “bubbles” to socialize within over the last year, Olulade said the time may have come to distance yourselves from those living outside your home—even those already within your bubble.
“I wouldn’t recommend Covid bubbles at this point because they often burst or have leaks,” she explained. “It is very difficult to determine if someone outside your household has taken all the necessary measures to limit infection.”
She recognizes how difficult that might be for some families, particularly those already struggling with distancing and changes to holiday plans. But as she explained, “The presence of one highly contagious and deadly virus anywhere is a threat to the health and safety of everyone everywhere.”
“We are at an inflection point where the tide of this wave will depend on what each of us does as an individual,” Olulade said. “Covid will have multiple ripple effects for years to come. They will write about this in the history books. People will talk about moments that you and I are having. Children will learn about this in school.”
When that happens, when future generations study what this generation did to try to stop the devastation, she said, “I want to be able to say that I did the best I could, and I hope you do too.”
Adjusting our holiday traditions this year is one way to save human lives. When you think about it like that, the sacrifices don’t seem so difficult.
After all, we’re making changes and keeping our distance this year, so that we can continue to celebrate with the people we love for many years to come.