After nearly two years of pandemic living, we are all ready to spend more time with friends and family. And most public health experts agree that it is OK to make holiday plans with your favorite people, as long as you are taking precautions. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer for lowering risk, answering a few simple questions can help you make decisions about safer holiday gatherings. Let’s get started.
Will everyone at the gathering be vaccinated?
Yes. Happy Vaxgiving! Enjoy your celebration knowing that by being vaccinated, you have already made the party safer for everyone.
To further lower risk, encourage every adult to seek out a booster shot. It only takes a few days for the extra protection to kick in. While you are at it, get your flu shot! Flu remains a serious health risk during the winter.
You are well protected with vaccines and boosters, but since no vaccine provides 100% protection, keep going for more advice to help make sure the coronavirus does not crash your holiday party.
— Children will not be vaccinated.
You get to celebrate Vaxgiving, too! Even though some children at your party are not vaccinated, risk goes down greatly when all eligible adults and teens are vaccinated. Partially vaccinated children will have some protection from the first shot, and children 4 and younger are largely protected if they are surrounded by vaccinated people.
On-the-spot rapid tests are a great way to lower risk and ease worry. Consider asking everyone, including children, to use a rapid home test on the day of the event, if possible.
Get a booster shot! While you are at it, have a flu shot too. Flu remains a significant health risk during the winter, and the flu vaccine keeps everyone safer during the holidays.
— Some adults and/or teens will not be vaccinated.
Of course it is safer if everyone at the party is vaccinated. But the reality is that a lot of people we care about have refused the shot. If you are going to a mixed-vax gathering, here is how to lower the risk.
Start by asking the other guests their ideas for gathering safely. Focus on solutions instead of arguing about vaccines. On-the-spot rapid tests are a great way to lower risk and ease worry. Improving ventilation can help, too: opening windows, using exhaust fans, adding portable air cleaners or moving the event outdoors. Encourage the vaccinated people in your group to get a booster shot.
While vaccines give the strongest protection, studies suggest that people who have had a confirmed case of COVID-19 may have some degree of natural immunity that can last for six months after infection.
Is there anyone at your gathering who is older or at higher risk for complications from COVID-19?
Yes. A lot of people will share their holidays with an older parent, grandparent or others at high risk. The key to a safer celebration is this: Plan the event around the most vulnerable person in the room.
Consider bringing the party to them so someone at high risk does not have to spend time in airports or on trains. People at high risk should get booster shots and talk to their doctors about the risks of traveling.
Getting tested a few days before the party and using on-the-spot home tests on the day of the event will allow you to enjoy one another’s company without worrying. Adding a portable air cleaner, opening windows or turning on exhaust fans can also lower risk for COVID-19 and any other viruses that might be lurking. Anyone with the sniffles should stay home.
Nobody likes wearing masks — and if everyone is vaccinated and tested, they are not really needed. But some high-risk people may be more comfortable using a mask and asking others to wear them, too.
No. If everyone at the party is relatively young and healthy, you may decide that being vaccinated is enough and that additional precautions, like on-the-spot testing, are not needed. COVID-19 vaccines do a good job of protecting you from serious illness, and booster shots can further lower the risk of getting infected.
Are you traveling to the gathering?
Nope. We are hosting (or staying in town). Less travel means less risk. Staying local is the lowest-risk option for the holidays. If you plan to take a taxi or Uber to or from your destination, wear a high-quality medical mask, keep the windows open and give your driver a generous tip for working on a holiday!
If you are using rapid tests, it is best to take the test outside or in the car until the results are in.
Yes. We are flying. Airport terminals are packed with people (and probably the virus). Upgrade your mask to a high-quality medical mask like an N95, KN95 or KF94. If that is not an option, then double mask with a surgical mask and quality cloth mask.
Avoid airport crowds, keep your distance in security screening lines, use hand sanitizer often and do not touch your face.
Planes have excellent ventilation systems that clean the air every two to three minutes. (Many office buildings clean the air about every 15 minutes.) Avoid flights with layovers if possible.
Keep your mask on the whole time. Skip airplane meals if you can, or try to eat after everyone else finishes and puts their mask back on. It is OK to take your mask off for a short time if you need to eat or drink.
Yes. We are taking a train or bus. Train systems may clean the air every four to five minutes. (Many office buildings clean the air about every 15 minutes.) Ventilation on buses depends on the bus and how many stops it makes. Although buses usually have air-cleaning systems, ventilation likely will be higher on a local bus with frequent door openings. Sit near doors and open a window if you can.
Upgrade your mask to a high-quality medical mask like an N95, KN95 or KF94. Keep your mask on the whole time, if possible. It is OK to take your mask off for very short periods to eat or drink. On trains, avoid the dining car, and bring your own snacks to eat at your seat.
Remember, train and bus terminals are packed with people (and probably the virus). Avoid crowds, keep your distance in screening lines, use hand sanitizer often and do not touch your face.
Yes. We are driving. Traveling to your holiday party by car, with members of your immediate household, is a lower-risk option. Wear masks when you stop for bathroom breaks and while in public areas of your hotel. Stick to takeout meals while on the road.
How is the COVID-19 situation where you are celebrating?
Things are looking pretty good. When you travel, check local COVID-19 conditions like you would the weather. Your risk of crossing paths with the coronavirus is lowest in areas where more people are vaccinated and the number of COVID-19 cases are low and falling.
And it is still a good idea to wear a mask in public spaces, even if you are vaccinated.
I am heading to a COVID-19 hot spot. If you are headed to a COVID-19 hot spot, you should take extra precautions. Wear a mask in public spaces, and you may want to avoid indoor dining, especially if someone in your group is at high risk.
Keep checking local COVID-19 conditions like you would the weather. Look at vaccination rates, case counts and hospitalization rates to assess risk. If hospitals are full, you are at risk for delayed care if anyone in your group has a medical emergency.
How is the COVID-19 situation where you live?
Pretty good. Party guests who live in a low-risk area with a high vaccination rate are less likely to come into contact with an infected person. But living in a highly vaccinated community can also cause you to let down your guard. Do not forget to mask and keep your distance if you are heading to an area where cases and transmission are high and vaccination rates are lower.
I wish more people were vaccinated around here. If you live in a COVID-19 hot spot, the chance of bringing the coronavirus with you when you travel is higher. (And the other guests at the party may give you side eye.) Be vigilant about masking and avoid crowds in the days before you leave. Use testing before and during the event to reassure everyone that you are not infectious.
How big is the gathering?
Two households. Keeping your holiday celebration small is a good way to minimize risk. When you limit a gathering to just two households, it is easier to keep track of risky behaviors and potential exposures.
Three or more households. Wow! Sounds like a fun party! Just remember when family and friends from multiple households gather together, it creates more opportunities for the virus to sneak in. This does not mean large families should not spend time together. But it does make it even more important that you take as many precautions as possible before and during the event.
Improve ventilation by opening windows and turning on exhaust fans. Use portable air cleaners in rooms where people will be gathering.
Before the party, check with everyone to find out if they are taking the same daily precautions that you do — like wearing masks and avoiding crowded places. The bigger the gathering, the more useful it is to have rapid home tests on hand for everyone.
How does the weather look?
Frightful. Let it snow! Outdoor gatherings are safer, but in cold weather, nobody wants to shiver around turkey and sweet potatoes.
If your party is in a cold climate, focus on ventilation. Turn on exhaust fans and bring in portable air cleaners. (They make a great holiday gift!) If it is not too cold, open lots of windows. Not only will these small steps lower risk for COVID-19, they will help keep other germs from spreading, too.
If everyone has used a rapid home test on the day of the party, that will lower the risk when everyone is stuck indoors.
But if testing is not an option, you should think about other ways to lower risk, especially if a vulnerable person is at your gathering. Instead of spending the whole time indoors, take walks or gather around a fire pit. Masks are not fun, but if tests are not possible and you are at a mixed-vax party, you may want to wear masks when people are chatting or shouting at the football game.
Delightful. If you are lucky enough to live in an area that does not get too cold in the winter, taking the party outside is an easy way to lower risk, especially if some people at the gathering are not vaccinated. Set up food tables outside and discourage people from gathering in the kitchen.
If everyone who is eligible is vaccinated, enjoy spending time indoors at the holiday table. Plan after-dinner walks and dessert around the fire pit to take advantage of the fresh air.
How many days until your event?
Soon. The next day or two. If your party is in just a few days, you may not have time to take all the precautions recommended in this quiz, but there are still things you can do to lower risk.
If you have been invited to other holiday gatherings before you leave, consider skipping those events, especially if you will be spending time with Grandma or another high-risk person. Be vigilant about reducing your exposures during travel. Shop for a rapid test kit you can use a few days before the gathering and on the day of the celebration.
I have more time. Remember, risk is cumulative. If you are looking for additional ways to lower risk for yourself and those you will be spending time with, consider scaling back other family activities in the days leading up to your event.
Think about skipping play dates, holiday parties and indoor dining in the week before your trip, especially if you live in a COVID-19 hot spot. Fewer outside contacts will lower your risk for coming into contact with the coronavirus before the party.
Here is our final tip.
Have fun! Holiday celebrations should be just that — a celebration of food and fun with family and friends. COVID-19 precautions do not have to get in the way of the good times. We know a lot of these precautions sound like a drag. How much or how little you do really depends on the personal health risk of everyone at the gathering.
If everyone at the party is young, healthy and vaccinated, you may decide that is good enough. If your party includes multiple generations, including unvaccinated children or adults, older grandparents and others at high risk, it is a good idea to take a layered approach and adopt as many precautions as possible while still enjoying yourselves.
Have a great holiday. Stay safe!