How to Celebrate Fall and Winter Holidays Safely During a Pandemic

With the season of family gatherings upon us, here are five ways to make your holiday celebrations safer for all.

holiday health advice halloween thanksgiving christmas

Thinking about trick-or-treating? Traveling for Thanksgiving? Experts weigh in with their holiday health advice. Photograph by CatLane/Getty Images

Holidays and COVID-19 do not get along.

Over the past seven months, on nearly every major public holiday, it seems people have been unable to resist gathering. Despite City guidance for social gatherings that encourages people to avoid gathering indoors, in the days following Easter Sunday, positive cases of coronavirus in Philadelphia nearly tripled, from 203 new positive cases on April 12th to 613 cases on April 14th. A similar spike occurred after Memorial Day when cases rose from 103 to 245, and again following Independence Day when cases rose from 47 to 189 three days after the holiday; and again on Labor Day, when the city saw a historically low number of new positive cases, 25, only to see that number balloon to 117 cases three days later.

Last week, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley confirmed new positive cases of coronavirus were rising in every zip code in the city, where health officials confirmed over 400 cases one day last week, with 1,020 additional confirmed cases over the weekend.

Now, as we’re approaching some of the most popular holidays of the year amid flu season and the continued spread of COVID-19, public health experts are working to ensure that, if people decide to gather, they know how to do so safely.

This weekend, Halloween is likely to spur some trick-or-treating, and undoubtedly, some parties. Earlier this month, the City issued guidance for Halloween activities encouraging trick-or-treaters to social distance and wear proper face masks with their costumes, and imploring adults to consider alternate ways of celebrating.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. While the easy fix for summer gatherings was to encourage meetings outdoors, cooler weather may mean more people will be planning indoor dinners for these holidays, something Jen Caudle, a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Medicine, says is just too risky.

“My family, we are not doing an in-person Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday this year,” Caudle said during a recent interview with Headline News. “This virus is running rampant throughout this country. We are literally in the middle of a pandemic. We need to be as careful and as safe as possible. In most situations, it is likely not worth it.”

For those who do decide to take the risk, we spoke to Susan Coffin, an attending physician for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) about how to be as safe as possible when gathering for fall and winter activities and holiday celebrations. Here are her five tips for a COVID-safe holiday gathering:

If you’re going out for Halloween, know the risks and map out a plan

“In isolation, you can imagine how one child with one supervising adult walking from one door to the next, staying far back from the door and extending the bag for someone to drop candy in it could be done safely. But the challenge is, that’s not actually how we experience Halloween,” Coffin explained. “We experience it in groups of kids, with groups of neighbors gathering and a lot of excitement and just a little bit of unruliness. This all part of the fun and that is just not a situation that’s well-suited for where we are right now with coronavirus.”

“I could imagine two or three friends or a family creating a schedule where groups take turns going to specific houses. But as soon as you get out on the street with a child in a costume at dusk, you’re taking a risk, because not everybody else is going to be following your highly controlled approach to this because it’s a publicly celebrated event.”

When eating indoors, keep your mask on as often as possible

“I think the key principles around any gathering indoors is to make it small brief and to spend a greater proportion of the time with your mask on,” Coffin said.

“A habit that’s emerged, and I’m guilty of it as well, is when I sit down at an outdoor restaurant, I instinctively go to take my mask off. I let down my guard and I don’t think that’s fair to the wait staff because it’s not safe. We should be keeping our masks on when the waiter or waitress approaches, between courses, and when we’re just chatting with friends, and we should only remove them when we’re actively eating and drinking. It’s hard to remember to do that but I think that’s a safer way to approach going out to eat indoors safely.”

If you’re going to add people to your COVID bubble for the holidays, quarantine first

“Some people have chosen to fuse their bubble with another family or two to form a slightly larger grouping that could gather on Thanksgiving. Bringing new people into your bubble for the sake of the holiday is so appealing, and I definitely want to do it too, but it does make me worry,” she said.

“If people choose to do so, I think they need to remember many of us have control over how much exposure we’re going to have in the 10 to 14 days prior to the holiday. So, if there is a major family commitment to do a shared Thanksgiving with a small number of people, like 10 or fewer, they should all commit to essentially putting themselves into a quarantine, leaving the house only for the most essential of things for that period of time. It’s not a guarantee that it will be safe, but it is a way to reduce risk.”

After your pre-holiday quarantine, get tested

“On top of isolating for 10 days and committing to wearing a mask, testing could be something that might give a small, extra increment of protection. It is in no way or a replacement for any of these other things,” Coffin said.

“That’s really one of the biggest problems that we’ve seen, particularly in the college outbreaks and the outbreaks amongst young adults who gather is that they get a negative test and then head out for a week of partying, not fully understanding that a negative test means there was no virus in the nose at the very moment. You could turn up positive the very next day.”

Avoid potlucks and traditional table setting for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner

“I think the way most of us behave at a potluck, that would be a problem, is that you have people pausing over the open lasagna, chatting with somebody else, leaving respiratory droplets here and there. So, I’m not a fan of the potluck right now,” Coffin said.

“I have seen some fun things where people have made individual servings so people can just pick one up and then walk away rather than linger over a whole bunch of open dishes. But this is tough to pull off in the context of a traditional celebration. You might want to have one person in charge of serving in the kitchen, have served plates brought out to everyone, and have the person who’s doing the serving wear a mask consistently. I think that probably would be a safer approach rather than having each person come up to the table and gather over the food.”