NOVEMBER 10, 2020 — We just wrapped up celebrating Halloween in new ways that used distance rather than doorstep delivery of treats. Families slid treats down long tubes into children’s bags or hung them off clotheslines for kids to grab, one at a time.
As we transition from one holiday to the next, the same recommendations apply for finding new and different ways to celebrate. We’re used to celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas with close family and friends. Traditions are important, but what are the safest ways to celebrate this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with cases escalating? Many Alaskans are separated from loved ones who live in other states. Should they consider traveling to celebrate in person?
The CDC recently published guidance on safer ways to honor holidays. This fall and winter, the lowest-risk celebrations involve staying close to home and avoiding air travel, as well as getting together in-person with only immediate family or your small household bubble.
There are many safer ways for families to celebrate the season, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. Go caroling outside with your family. Exchange your favorite holiday recipes with friends, and then hold a cooking party over Zoom. Celebrate the spirit of giving by finding ways to help and serve your neighbors or elders in the community. During a statewide meeting Monday, leaders in Alaska’s faith communities shared ways they are serving elders and people who are feeling alone during the holidays.
“We’re starting a pen pal project with residents at the Pioneer Homes and other assisted living facilities,” said Pastor Matt Schultz of First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage. They’re making cards and sharing them with elders during the holidays.
“There is a lot of hope right now, with improved treatment and vaccine development, but at the same time we have a lot of cases in Alaska and in the United States, and our hospitals are filling up. To protect those we love, we all need to plan our holiday season carefully this year,” Zink said. “Connecting with family and friends is vital to our health and well-being, but we need to connect creatively and virtually so everyone can stay safe and healthy — and so we keep control of COVID in Alaska. We want you to have a happy and healthy holiday season and we want to make sure there is health care capacity. We need the help of all Alaskans to ensure that happens.”
Should you attend indoor holiday parties or gatherings this fall and winter?
Dr. Elizabeth Ohlsen, staff physician with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, recognizes that people will be tempted to hold a holiday gathering inside, but she said it’s safest to limit those in-person celebrations to only people in your household bubble. COVID-19 cases have been rising fast in Alaska. That makes gathering indoors — even with people you know who are outside your household bubble — a very risky activity, Ohlsen said. That’s because there’s typically less ventilation and room for physical distancing with indoor rather than outdoor gatherings.
Sometimes people say they feel safe inviting non-household members inside because those guests don’t feel sick, Ohlsen said. Many people with COVID-19 can feel fine, or have very minimal symptoms, and then spread the illness to others, she said.
“This virus is tricky. It’s sneaky,” Ohlsen said. “It likes to move from person to person by not making almost half the people who get infected feel sick.”
“Unfortunately, the people you are most likely to get it from are your closest friends — if that’s who you have close contact with.”
In warmer parts of the country, families may be considering a small outdoor holiday gathering. An outdoor gathering in the cold, darkness of an Alaska December may not be that inviting. If you do hold or attend an outdoor gathering, bundle up and make sure people can stay warm and dry. Limit attendees, allow physical distance between guests, provide ways to wash or sanitize hands and commonly touched surfaces, and require everyone to wear face coverings, Ohlsen said. Typically, holiday gatherings focus on sharing favorite treats. This year, however, the CDC recommends that guests bring food and drinks only for themselves and avoid potluck-style gatherings. More recommendations for food and drinks at gatherings can be found on the CDC website.
When getting together with others, it’s important to consider the actions that guests have been taking prior to gathering, and how they will act while together. Get-togethers are more likely to spread illness when they include guests who aren’t regularly staying at least six feet apart from others and aren’t wearing face coverings or taking other precautions. Once the get-together is happening, it’s again more likely to spread illness when guests do not wear masks, don’t keep distance from others, and fail to wash or sanitize their hands, according to the CDC holiday guidance.
When should people not attend an in-person gathering, inside or outside?
People should not attend or host in-person celebrations — even if held outdoors — if they or anyone in their household:
Should you travel by airplane this fall and winter to celebrate holidays in person with loved ones?
The two biggest risks to Alaskans for spreading COVID-19 this winter are indoor gatherings and travel, Ohlsen said. The CDC holiday guidance states that travel increases the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home this year is the best way to protect yourself and others, the guidance states.
“Many of us in Alaska are used to enduring long periods of time without seeing our families and then having just a few brief days when we travel to see our families,” Ohlsen said.
“There is something particularly cruel about the virus taking that away from us this year. We all feel like we need a break. Unfortunately, this virus is not going to take a break.”
Traveling during a pandemic can increase chances of spreading COVID-19, although taking precautions like wearing a mask and washing hands often can help reduce those chances. Ohlsen said she worries that holiday travel could increase the likelihood of being exposed to someone who’s sick in airports, on flights, in ride shares and in public transportation. So many people want to travel right now. They’ve really been missing that travel, so they might decide to fly, even though they don’t feel well, Ohlsen said. That decision could spread illness to people traveling all over the country, increasing the chances that you’ll catch COVID-19 and inadvertently bring it to a holiday gathering you’re traveling to, that someone else will have COVID-19 at your gathering and give it to you, or you’ll catch it on the return and bring the virus back home.
The CDC has guidance on when to cancel travel: if you’re feeling sick, if you’ve been around someone with suspected or diagnosed COVID-19 in the past 14 days, if you’ve tested positive or if you are waiting on the results of a test.
You can read more about travel guidance during the pandemic here:
Are there creative ways to celebrate the holidays to reduce the chances of spreading illness?
Celebrating holidays with friends and family is so important right now. To prevent inadvertently spreading the virus to loved ones, it’s best to celebrate only in-person with household members and to include others in your celebrations through virtual means, states the CDC holiday guidance. This is particularly important to protect the health of older people and others who face higher chances for serious illness from COVID-19.
Pastor Undra Parker at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and other Alaska faith leaders are organizing exchanges to share favorite holiday recipes with others. This helps people connect through cooking treasured foods, even though they aren’t eating them together. Pastor Parker said his church is also considering a contest that invites children to create their own gingerbread houses at home and record their creative efforts to share with others.
Dr. Ohlsen shared another way to use technology to invite family and friends to your holiday dinner table. Consider cooking your feast with your household, and then setting up a computer at the end of the holiday table to eat together, but virtually. Yes, it’s not going to feel the same as past holidays, but it’s a creative connection when it counts.