Experts: How to celebrate holidays safely during COVID
Shirley Bloethe is planning to celebrate Thanksgiving like she always does with about 20 family members at her son’s house.
But for Melissa Friedman, this year’s holiday guest list will only include those in her household.
The Oxford resident says Thanksgiving this year will be a small gathering that includes her husband and two children, ages 3 and 14, to avoid the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
“My mom is actually very ill and also disabled,” Friedman said. “We don’t think she would make it if she even got a cold, let alone COVID.”
Bloethe, however, has no intention of changing her holiday plans. Bloethe said no one who is attending the gathering is considered high risk for COVID-19. She said some of her family members have already had COVID and have recovered. She also said she regularly has Sunday dinner with family members, and doesn’t see the harm in having a holiday meal.
“We’re going to have what I would call a ‘normal’ Thanksgiving,” the New Britain resident said.
Friedman, meanwhile, will FaceTime with her mom on Thanksgiving and enjoy a full dinner with her immediate family.
“I’m just not comfortable with putting my mom’s life in danger,” she said.
As the holidays approach, it’s a situation that has health experts concerned. And it starts with Halloween on Saturday.
“Hibernation is very good and considered to be quite safe,” quipped Dr. Michael Parry, chief of infectious disease at Stamford Hospital.
Joking aside, Parry said people do need to be careful when planning their holiday events, and use some common sense.
“The more active you are, the more gathering you do, the more face-to-face activity with an unmasked crowd, the greater your risk,” he said.
But that shouldn’t mean skipping the holidays. There are holiday activities that can be done safely, experts said, as long as people wear masks, wash hands, and socially distance.
“We don’t want to get rid of every holiday or not celebrate,” said Richard Grenier, associate chairman of Bridgeport Hospital’s emergency room.
Here is a list of common holiday activities, along with their risks and tips for doing them safely, according to experts.
Many communities are discouraging residents from going door-to-door to get candy, while others, including Bridgeport, are organizing drive-thru trick-or-treat events.
Grenier said many aspects of trick-or-treating are in line with COVID-19 safety protocols. “If you’re outside and wearing masks, it’s pretty safe,” he said.
The problem is with how the candy is distributed, he said. Taking candy directly from people is still risky, experts have said.
Solutions to that include leaving a bowl outside and quarantining the candy for at least three days. Grenier said he’s seen viral videos of people constructing candy chutes out of pipes. The mechanism propels the candy from the home to trick-or-treaters.
“That’s fun, and as long as (the hands of the person putting the candy in the pipe) are clean, that’s pretty safe,” he said.
Since trick-or-treaters are usually young children, Grenier said it might be worth giving trick-or-treating a shot since that group is relatively low-risk for COVID-19. But families need to be careful about who they are in contact with afterward.
“If a young kid goes trick-or-treating and hangs out with their grandparents afterward, that’s not a good idea,” he said.
Thanksgiving dinners and other family gatherings
Most experts said gathering with people outside of the household is risky. Parry said small gatherings are safer, because social distancing is more possible. But, he added, “I understand family gatherings are usually not accompanied by social distancing and mask-wearing.”
If people must gather with family members outside their household, Parry said, everyone should check in and make sure all invited parties have been practicing masking, hand-washing and social distancing, to minimize the chance that anyone is infected.
“Families need to touch base and make sure everyone is behaving appropriately when outside the family setting,” he said.
Outdoor gatherings are always safer, but become less feasible when the weather is colder, said Dr. Diane Kantaros, chief quality officer of Nuvance Health, which includes Danbury, Norwalk, New Milford and Sharon hospitals. But there is a way to make even indoor gatherings a bit safer.
“Keep your gatherings small and open some windows in the house,” she said. “Even opening a window a small amount will help increase air circulation in the house.”
Still, even with risk reductions, a holiday dinner can carry safety hazards.
“The bigger risk is eating inside in close proximity to each other with masks off,” Kantaros said. “A formal sit-down dinner with non-household members may not be the best choice this year. Some separation while eating with a face mask off and increased ventilation in the room would be less risk.”
Grenier said he understands the need to be with family at the holidays, but if family members are older or have compromised immune systems “maybe have a Zoom holiday.”
For those who plan to go away for the holidays, Kantaros said some options are safer than others.
“Driving is safer than public transportation, but if you are driving with people who do not live in your household, you and your passengers should wear a mask and keep the windows open or cracked if weather is an issue,” she said. “When using public transportation, sit more than 6 feet apart and continue to wear a mask throughout the trip. If the form of public transportation allows you to open a window, do so.”
There are some holiday traditions that fairly low-risk. Kantaros said holiday sightseeing — looking at decorations, for example — is pretty safe, as long as everyone is masked and distant.
Holiday shopping can also be safe, Parry said, as long as the stores aren’t too crowded to allow for social distancing, and hand-washing and mask-wearing are observed.
Though it’s hard to be safe and enjoy the holidays, Grenier said getting to do some sort of celebration might actually have health benefits.
“One of the risk factors for many (infectious diseases) is isolation and depression,” he said. “We have to find a way to celebrate some holidays.”