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Navigate the Holidays During COVID-19 – Make a Plan Now

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There’s no doubt about it; holidays this year will look different then they have in the past. The number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise and the pandemic has made any sort of gathering more risky. Some of the events and traditions you look forward to each year may not be happening in 2020.

“In moments of uncertainty it is natural to experience a desire to avoid thinking about and making plans for the holidays,” said Geoff Schaubhut, a resident psychologist with Main Street Family Medicine in Lebanon. “Identifying this source of stress with family and starting planning early gives you and others time to adjust expectations for the season.”

Take Time Now to Plan Holidays

Dr. Schaubhut recommends taking some time now to think about what gatherings you normally participate in during the holidays. Make a list and note which ones are important to you and which ones you are happy taking a break from this year. When you have the important events highlighted, think about what you enjoy about each of these. Maybe it’s catching up, watching football or a favorite holiday movie together, or enjoying family recipes.

Evaluate Your Risk

Your age and general health affect how at risk you are for contracting a severe case of the coronavirus.

Older adults are at a higher risk for serious illness, and the CDC reports that eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths are in people aged 65 and older. People with certain medical conditions like cancer, heart conditions, type 2 diabetes, asthma and pregnancy may also be at an increased risk for severe illness.

“Traveling carries a risk of transmitting the virus to others, especially if you’re traveling to or from an area with a higher infection rate or receiving guests,” says Olivia Danforth, MD, from Samaritan Family Medicine – Geary Street in Albany. “Air travel, hotels and ride shares all increase your contact with others and your overall risk.”

Self-isolating for two weeks before a get-together in the hopes of enjoying time without masks or physical distance can reduce the risk that you will transmit the virus to others. However, a paper published in the journal PLOS Medicine reported that one in five people who have COVID-19 don’t ever show symptoms but can still transmit the virus.

Self-isolating and then taking a COVID-19 test is a more thorough way to evaluate your risk factors, but Dr. Danforth cautions that the test gives your status at one point in time. You could get negative results from the day of your test, and then become infected and contagious before the event.

Manage Disappointment

There is comfort in tradition, so no matter what the holidays look like you may have some feelings of sadness because they are different. This can be especially true if you aren’t gathering with family, or if they are gathering without you.

“It’s ok to feel sad, disappointed, mad or frustrated,” says Dr. Schaubhut. “Acknowledge that life is all of those things and more right now. Remember that even though things are different, you have strength to tolerate it and a reason for making these changes – the safety of you and your loved ones.” 

Once you’ve dealt with those feelings, you may find that there are some positive things to doing the holidays a little differently.

Review Recommendations & Make a New Plan

After you’ve compiled the events that you’d like to participate in, review the recommendations for safely approaching holidays from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which rates certain activities as lower, moderate or higher risk. Try to incorporate some of what you enjoy about each activity into the new version of your holiday celebration.

“The safest choice is to avoid in-person interaction with people outside your household,” says Dr. Danforth. “However, there are ways that you can engage with others that have varying levels of risk. It won’t be the same, but just knowing that others are thinking of you and making an effort to connect with you is meaningful.”

Low Risk Activities

Low risk activities involve just the people who live in your household.

  • Organize a cookie or tree decorating group video chat.
  • Mail or drop off gifts early and schedule a time so presents can be opened together over video chat.
  • Invite others to create an ugly sweater and share a photo. Award winners in categories like most festive, largest, ugliest construction, most creative, etc.
  • Choose a cocktail recipe for the group to make, and toast in the New Year together over video chat.

Moderate Risk Activities

Moderate risk activities take place outdoors and have a limited number of people attending who live in your community. Precautions like wearing masks, hand hygiene and maintaining at least six feet of physical distance should be observed.

  • Visit a tree farm or outdoor light display.
  • Prepare traditional family recipes for family or neighbors and drop them off without making contact.
  • Arrange your own “Turkey Trot” with a small group of family or friends.
  • Skip the big dinner and enjoy dessert and a warm drink outside with a small group of family who live nearby. Choose one family member to be the server instead of buffet-style.
  • Outdoor enthusiasts can spend time together participating in seasonal sports like ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing or skiing.

Higher Risk Activities 

  • Busy shopping days, like Black Friday.
  • Indoor holiday parties and gatherings.

Communicate Your Preferences

“Be kind as you are talking about your preferences with family members, sending your regrets or pitching your idea for an alternative gathering,” says Dr. Schaubhut.

“Having differing opinions is natural and to be expected. Remember that everyone is doing the best they can right now,” he says. “Attempt to remain open to other ideas, as someone else in the family may have come up with a great idea that meets your needs for balancing safety and celebration.”

Be sensitive about topics that may not benefit from negotiation, like science or politics, and be willing to table the conversation when needed. If accommodation to your safety measures is not possible, Dr. Schaubhut recommends being prepared to calmly establish your boundary by stating that you will need to stay home this year but look forward to future holidays.

Enhance Connection Beyond Family Traditions

“You might not be sharing a meal together but you can still connect in other ways and embrace the spirit of the season. In fact, thinking of others is a great way to bring more joy to your own life,” says Dr. Schaubhut.

Other Low Risk Activity Ideas

Send a thoughtful note or text to loved ones you won’t see in person during the holidays. Donate food or money to a food pantry or homeless shelter. Look for giving trees and purchase a present for a child in need.

“Recognize what each holiday ‘should’ be and embrace what is possible right now,” says Dr. Schaubhut. “You can still demonstrate the values of the holiday season like being thankful, generous and sharing with others. You may just find new traditions that you like even more than the old ones.” 

Get tips for using technology to socialize and decrease isolation.

For more information about coronavirus, see samhealth.org/Coronavirus.