With just a few weeks until Christmas arrives, the idea of gathering the family to celebrate holds a lot more anxiety than it ever did before. The novel coronavirus pandemic is fully raging on as winter forces people to move inside, with confirmed cases of COVID-19 booming from 10 million to over 11 million in just a week's time in early November. And while earlier this year there was discussion about a potential vaccine arriving in time for Christmas, one has not yet been approved. As many families are making plans for December celebrations, federal health officials are hoping Americans will be practicing stringent social distancing and staying home as much as possible.
A major concern during the holiday season is coronavirus spread related to dinner parties, with households moving into tight quarters with friends or family that don't live in their home. It's why states like Michigan and Washington, as well as Texas and California, have instituted new state-mandated guidelines on business and social gatherings prior to the holiday season. According to the Associated Press, Michigan's new mandate has shut down all sporting events and closed restaurants that only offer inside seating, among other initiatives to curb the spread of new COVID-19 cases. Officials in Washington, however, have gone further than new rules for businesses — they've surpassed California's recommendations for private social gatherings, too, by banning parties or dinners outright for the next month: Unless those at the table have quarantined for two weeks, or have tested negative for COVID-19 and quarantined for a week, they won't be able to attend private social gatherings this holiday season.
There are many variations of social gathering rules in each state, but for some Americans, annual Christmas traditions are now out of the question due to updated travel guidelines in over 25 different states. Most of these states (you can view a full list of travel restrictions via the New York Times) require some form of isolation, unless you submit to a COVID-19 test — but even then, risk can vary greatly based on when and how guests are traveling to your home. Any person will bring some form of risk to your home if you host them for Christmas, even if they abide by guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Are you considered high risk for severe complications caused by the novel coronavirus? Find out which existing health conditions and lifestyle factors contribute to at-risk status, as defined by CDC officials. Both federal officials and health experts agree: You should not be hosting guests in your home if you share it with a high-risk individual, and those same individuals shouldn't travel during the holidays. There are still many ways that at-risk individuals can celebrate Christmas without leaving their homes — learn more about how celebrate Christmas in quarantine.
As a host, you should be able to answer the following questions with ease:
How many people will be invited to your home, and is your space large enough to allow social distancing inside?
Where are they coming from? Is COVID-19 spreading faster or slower in that region?
How will they travel to your home? Will they use public transportation?
How long do you plan to have them inside your home?
If you plan to host beyond a single evening, where will they live in your home? Does it require you to share a bedroom or a bathroom?
If you can't answer those questions confidently, it may indicate your plans will come with a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, says Christelle Ilboudo, M.D., an infectious disease specialist working in pediatrics within the University of Missouri Health Care System. If you're still planning on hosting family members or friends for Christmas (or any December holiday), there are a few ways to reduce any health risks prior to the 25th:
How can I safely host Christmas dinner this year?
COVID-19 is easily spread when an asymptomatic individual (someone who is silently carrying the disease) breathes infectious droplets or aerosols around others, which is why it's crucial to bring your gathering outside if at all possible. If you don't have space outside, the single-most important thing you can do is work on ventilation in your dining room, Dr. Ilboudo says. "For most homes, it's as easy as opening the doors or your windows to the outside air, making sure that air is being replaced," she says, adding that stale air can be dangerous in an inside setting, as the evening progresses. "Some people have gone out to purchase air filters or fans, and that's good for reducing risk, as long as you are getting the air recirculated in the room — to get the air to move and replace itself as much as possible."
Since many families may gather for a Christmas dinner, the best way to host guests involves tactics and updates you have already made for Thanksgiving. Here are some things you can do to make a Christmas dinner a little bit safer:
Create seating arrangements that put as much distance between your household and your visitors, even a separate table if you can. If possible, outside is best and can alleviate much risk.
Arrange your meals in advance, and skip a family-style or buffet-like set up this year. Have only one person be designed as the runner or server, so that most everyone remains seated during dinner.
Wear masks when you're not eating and make sure materials are available to your guests to clean their hands throughout the evening.
You don't have to furiously scrub or disinfect each and every surface as soon as they're touched, but consider leaving disinfecting wipes or spray in your bathroom. Guests can clean their hands and then spray or wipe down handles, faucets, or doorknobs before they walk out. Open up those bathroom windows if possible, too!
Sitting down for a television special or for a quiet chat before or after dinner isn't an automatic no this year, but you should avoid any singing, shouting, or a game night where you need to share cards or pieces, Dr. Ilboudo advises.
Safety tips to keep in mind for overnight guests:
Since officials at the CDC now define "close contact" to a sick individual as anything longer than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period, every kind of visitor brings some risk into your home. But overnight visitors can bring an insurmountable risk if they must share living quarters with you, Dr. Ilboudo clarifies, adding that a recent CDC-issued report illustrates this trend. It may be safer for your own family to simply ask your guests to stay by in a nearby hotel — and keep exposure to others in the building to a minimum — than to invite them into your living space. You should also consider canceling playing host to overnight guests if you don't have the space to offer individual bedrooms and bathrooms, she argues.
"The guest space should be their own space — that's really going to help decrease your risk if you're not sharing things as much as possible… But it would be best if they didn't have to be in your home for the entire visit," Dr. Ilboudo says. "Just come for the activities you are planning, outdoors if possible, and then return home or back to their hotel." The key here is spending as much time as possible outside or in a centralized room — the dining room, a living room — and then retreating to individual bedrooms and bathrooms as soon as possible. The shorter the interactions, the less likely a visitor to your home will be able to spread viable virus particles onto surfaces or into the air around you.
Is gift giving canceled this year?
The good news? You shouldn't hold back from gifting a present, or accepting a gift, if you are worried about COVID-19. Because the disease is thought to primarily spread in close contact with other people, and not by surfaces, you likely will not have to disinfect wrapped gifts when you receive them. Rather, you'll focus on making sure your hands are clean and avoid rubbing your eyes, nose, or mouth if they are not.
"It's just not the primary way that COVID-19 spreads. Unless that person is actively sneezing and coughing on your package when they hand it to you, the chances that active virus is living on the box… are fairly low to basically non-existent," Dr. Ilboudo explains. "Are you wearing your masks during a gift giving session, and are everyone's hands clean? That's what you should focus on."
While the risk is indeed low, something that you can do is wrap your gift earlier — so that the item inside remains protected from any surface germs long before it's time to exchange. That way, you can remove the wrappings, wash your hands, and then simply feel free to unbox or use the gift right away.
These Christmas traditions and celebrations are being canceled:
The CDC has yet to release updated guidelines on which Christmas activities are considered highest risk during the pandemic. We'll update this guide with new information as it becomes available. But it's clear that public events that normally draw crowds (even outside!) are being impacted by new rules and guidance. You can see which kinds of guidelines or new mandates are in place for December holidays in your local community by turning to your local health department.
So far, many annual Christmas traditions have indeed been canceled or, at the very least, reimagined altogether. In New York City, for example, Radio City's annual Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular was outright canceled for the entire 2020 season earlier this year. Many of the remaining New York City Christmas traditions are being scaled down, like ice skating at the iconic Rockefeller Center, which opens this upcoming week with a vastly reduced admittance to encourage social distancing.
Here's a preview of how other Christmas traditions are being impacted this year:
New York, New York: Along with Radio City, the dancers at the New York City Ballet are not performing The Nutcracker in front of millions of audience members this year. But not all traditions are canceled — the 88th Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree will be dressed in millions of lights as it normally is. Rather than invite guests to watch as the tree is lit, NBC will simply broadcast the lighting without an audience this year. We're guessing that many cities across the nation may put up a tree, but will skip ceremonies altogether instead.
Miami, Florida: One of the most tropical cities in America is known by locals and tourists alike for their annual Christmas event, Santa's Enchanted Forest. It's been outright canceled for the 2020 season, though, and Floridians are facing vastly different theme park experiences in Orlando as both Universal and Walt Disney World are operating under capacity.
Chicago, Illinois: The Windy City is known for its annual German-inspired Christmas markets, the Christkindlmarkets. They've managed to go digital during the pandemic, though, as organizers pivoted to a digital marketplace to avoid in-person crowds. ABC7 reports locals will be able to shop online this year.
Branson, Missouri: Silver Dollar City manages to bring in thousands of visitors from the Midwest, and will remain open this year with updated social distancing guidelines. But the city of Branson as a whole has many Christmas attractions (like a real-life Polar Express) — some of which have been impacted, including a whole host of Christmas tours that are now canceled.
Austin, Texas: The small suburb of Taylor has canceled all of its signature Christmas events, including parades and fairs, Austin's FOX7 reports. The town's Heritage Square will still be decorated for Christmas, but shops and markets will be limited due to state regulations.
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