This year’s fall and winter celebrations are going to look a little different. As we begin to prepare for time with family and friends, infectious disease experts are urging caution. Temperatures in many areas of the country have begun to drop, forcing us inside and in closer quarters, and once again COVID-19 rates are on the rise. So, how exactly can we stay safe while still enjoying the most wonderful time of the year? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently released guidelines to help us all stay vigilant.

Evaluate the Risk of Holiday Activities

Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally the biggest travel weekend of the year, but this year the CDC recommends avoiding that trip if possible. "Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others," noted the CDC. With that in mind, the safest course of action for celebrating the holidays during COVID-19 is to have a simple celebration at home with just in-house family members. Having a virtual dinner, or sharing recipes with family and friends, is a great way to expand beyond the reach of your household in a safe way.

Even with safety measures in place, hosting a small, outdoor dinner with family and friends who live nearby is a higher-risk activity. Similarly, attending small outdoor sporting events still poses a moderate risk of infection. That is why watching from home is the best option. Other holiday activities that pose a less, yet moderate risk include visiting a pumpkin patch, or orchard where people are using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and social distancing.

If Black Friday shopping is part of your holiday traditions, this year browsing sales online is the way to go, as hitting crowded malls and stores poses a higher risk of infection. And while most holiday parades have been cancelled this year, it’s a good idea to remember why they were cancelled. Any large group of individuals who do not live together crowded together—even if it’s outside—is a risky way to spend the holidays.

Food and Drinks

Another way to engage with your community is to prepare holiday meals for non-household family members and share with contactless delivery. This is a great way to show that you care for those who are at high risk for contracting COVID-19 without putting them in harm’s way. However, anyone handling food should wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before serving or eating. Limiting the amount of people in food preparation areas and wearing a mask while preparing or serving food should be standard.  

If You Decide to Attend a Holiday Celebration

If you choose to host or attend a holiday gathering, set the ground rules in advance and ensure all guests agree to those safety measures before they plan on attending. Before getting together guests should consider quarantining for 14 days prior. As the event gets closer, it is important to remind invited guests to stay home if they are experiencing any symptoms. In addition, anyone who has been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 should stay home and monitor their own symptoms. People who are over 60 or have underlying health issues like lung or heart disease are at increased risk of developing severe illness, so they should think twice about attending a gathering.

If you decide to host a gathering, the CDC suggests keeping a list of guests who attend any gathering for potential contact tracing just in case someone develops symptoms after the event.

Share house rules in advance, letting your guests know that if they come over, they must practice social distancing. This is more easily done at outdoor gatherings but with the colder temperatures looming, many holiday celebrations will be held inside, posing a greater risk. Therefore, participants need to be extra cautious about remaining six feet apart and wearing masks at all times. Since you can’t wear masks while eating, set up tables so that people from different families will be able to maintain the required distance at all times. Avoid gestures that promote close contact like handshakes and hugs.

Where pot-luck style meals may have been popular in the past, this year it is inadvisable. Instead guests should be encouraged to bring their own food and beverages and only remove their face mask to eat or drink. The CDC suggests avoiding drinking alcohol because it can cloud judgement and increase risky behavior.

The duration of a gathering should be considered as the longer a party lasts the more risk of exposure. Though the CDC does not have a limit for attendees, risk is increased by the more people who attend and where they are coming from. Anyone traveling during the holidays increases their risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. "We've got to be careful," Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN. "You've got to take it as an individual case. It depends on where you are and where you are traveling."

But the overall message is clear, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.

Visit the CDC website to learn more.

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