How to safely gather during the holidays in a pandemic

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Given that most of the year has been filled with uncertainty, worry and frustration, we may be inclined to rush headlong toward a happier season and a new year glittered with the hope that in 2021 we can get back to normal.

The fact is, our lives continue to be shaped by the current pandemic and our holiday gatherings may look and feel distinctly different this year. 

It was easier in summer to gather outside at home or in public and still maintain the health protocols we’ve learned can help prevent the spread of a vicious virus. But for much of the country, the weather in November and December is inhospitable to outdoor dining, complicating our Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year celebrations.

That yards-long dining table with a multitude of faces gathered around a holiday feast? Probably not a good idea, even if those faces are masked. This year, holding a safe family celebration will involve much more than a well-cooked bird.

A safer approach to the holiday dinner

Throughout the past several months, countless celebrations have been postponed or cancelled. Now we’re facing the most anticipated and social-centric season of the year. Gathering with friends and family during the holidays is tradition, iconic, sacrosanct – and given what we’ve been through this year, quite possibly important to our mental health.

Without a doubt, mingling unmasked at any indoor event carries the potential for infection unless everyone attending can get tested or commit to strict quarantining for weeks prior. If that isn’t an option and you absolutely, positively must have a holiday gathering of some kind, there are ways to minimize your risk, but it will take forethought, communication, planning and effort.

You may already have widened your social circle by creating a “corona bubble,” limiting your interaction to a small group of individuals or households. Hopefully this “bubble” contains the people with whom you want to spend the holidays.

If not, take a good look at your guest list. Let the space you have for entertaining be your guide and keep things roomy.

Consider having a frank discussion with those you plan to invite. Can you all agree on the protective measures you feel are necessary, both before and during the event? You’ll want to be clear about expectations for greeting, visiting and dining.

You may find it helpful to reach out before your gathering to ensure everyone is on the same page. Be sure to highlight how things may be different for your event this year, including your expectations and plans regarding masking, social distancing and bathroom use.

Setting up

Safety starts at the front door. Your first instinct may be to hug and kiss, but it’s wiser to keep physical contact to a minimum. Elbow bumps under the mistletoe will be trending this year. Follow these safety tips when planning your event.

  • If you prefer that you and your guests remain masked as much as possible, consider providing everyone with disposable masks and keep the hand sanitizer handy.
  • Plan for pre-dining conversation by arranging furniture ahead of time to give your guests some space.
  • Utilize several small dining tables instead of one large crowded table, and seat people from the same household together.
  • In the powder room, offer pump soap, hand sanitizer and disposable towels for hand drying. The Washington Post even recommends listing etiquette rules in the bathroom, including closing the lid before flushing, washing hands and using a provided sanitizing wipe to clean the area for the next user.

Dinner is served

Although surfaces aren’t considered a major transmitter for COVID, probably the fewer people who touch serving utensils the better. That makes family-style and buffet meals less desirable than designating a single server. If your guests will be serving themselves, make hand washing and sanitizing a priority before heading to the buffet or table.

Again, it’s wise to specify serving procedures in advance. Consider calling a few people at a time to the buffet station to avoid guests crowding around the serving dishes all at once. Or, try a tray dinner, where servings are portioned separately ahead of time, cafeteria-style. It isn’t Norman Rockwell, but it does minimize contact.

If you just can’t bear to pare down your guest list, consider a progressive-style dinner. Let each household unit attend separately for an hour or so, with time in between to clean up and refill serving trays. Refresh indoor air by opening doors and windows before the next group arrives.

Mom and Dad’s place in the pandemic

The fact that seniors continue to be most at risk for COVID-19 further complicates plans if your holiday gatherings are typically held at mom and dad’s house. This is the year for them to take it easy and not host the whole gang. Instead, suggest they hold a small dinner with one or two adult children, instead of exposing them to grandchildren who may unknowingly carry infection into their home. They can still visit with the grandkids virtually.

Host a virtual event

If you decide not to hold an in-person celebration, that doesn’t mean you can’t see each other over the holidays. Lots of options exist to host a party online.

  • Pick a time, date and platform. Make sure everyone invited has access to the virtual location and knows how to use it. Consider a pre-event practice run. That way, challenges with cameras and headphones, learning skills like muting, and overcoming environmental issues like lighting and location can be addressed beforehand.
  • Send the invitation and the link. An advantage to a virtual event is that you can invite as many people as you want, including out-of-towners who aren’t often able to travel.
  • A party theme may or may not already be built in, depending on the holiday. Dress up for the occasion – and decorate your surroundings.
  • Plan for some after-dinner entertainment. Virtual watch parties are big this year. You can watch the big game together, or a favorite holiday movie.
  • Put on a talent show! Create a line-up beforehand and email a program to participants.
  • Schedule Show and Tell, letting everyone feature the new and impressive skills gained during quarantine, from bread making, to crafting, to playing an instrument.

We’re all still navigating life during a pandemic. Figuring out how to get through the holidays may be the final logistical hurdle. Whether you decide to gather in person or online, taking precautions now will hopefully help ensure happier, more social celebrations in the coming year.