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A smiling family eats together. A smiling family eats together.

Holiday planning during the pandemic

Traditionally, the end of the year is filled with holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and good cheer — but the holidays may look a little different this year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the CDC cautions that holiday celebrations carry many risk factors for getting or spreading COVID-19.1 But that doesn’t mean you should skip the holiday celebrations entirely. In fact, preserving holiday traditions and connecting with loved ones may be especially important this year.

After many months of physical distancing, the effects of social isolation and quarantine fatigue have taken a toll on our mental health. As early as March, a survey showed that over half of American adults said the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health and caused feelings of depression, anxiety, or both.2 That’s why it’s especially important to take care of our mental health this time of year. Connecting with loved ones — by phone, video chat, or in person — can help people of all ages cope with feelings of sadness or the holiday blues.

There are many ways you can show your friends and family you care, even if it’s just over the phone. Celebrating with those in your household is the safest option. But if you plan to gather with more people, it’s important to take steps to celebrate safely and responsibly. Here are 3 questions to consider when making plans, so you can share in the joy of the holidays while reducing the risk of spreading the virus.

Who will be there?

Like with any get-together right now, it’s important to limit the number of people you gather with. So, it might be tricky deciding who you’ll see this holiday season. You may choose to do smaller gatherings or virtual gatherings instead of attending multiple events.

The general rule is to stick to people in your household or your “quaranteam” — also known as a quarantine bubble or a pandemic pod. For months, the term quaranteam has been used to describe the social circle you see in person during the pandemic to help you feel supported and connected to others. It’s a way to limit the risk of infection while also maintaining the social connections that benefit our mental health. For example, your quaranteam may include another family, a few select friends, or your neighbors. When you form a quaranteam or quarantine bubble, you make an agreement as a group to only see people within that bubble.

So, if you’re planning to see people outside of your bubble for the holidays, you’ll need to check in with your quaranteam first to make sure everyone agrees as a group. And you’ll want to take extra precautions. For example, you may ask everyone to socially isolate for 2 weeks before your holiday gathering. It’s OK to set boundaries or tell your friends and family you don’t feel comfortable getting together.

Where will you spend time, and for how long?

Indoor gatherings generally pose more risk than outdoor gatherings so, if weather permits, try to gather outdoors. If your celebration is indoors, ventilation with open windows or doors can help lower risk.

Also, shorter gatherings are lower risk. So, for example, if you’re planning to get together with your family and you usually stay overnight, you could limit your plans to a physically distanced dinner party instead.

How will you socialize safely?

It’s important for everyone to have an understanding of how they should behave when you’re together. For example, you might want everyone to agree to sit 6 feet apart and to wear masks the entire time or part of the time. If you’re indoors, it’s especially important to wear a mask. And you might opt for one person serving food versus a buffet style where everyone is passing items around. Getting creative and being flexible with your annual traditions will help keep everyone safe. According to the CDC, gatherings with more preventive measures like wearing a mask, physically distancing, and washing your hands pose less risk than gatherings where fewer or no preventive measures are being implemented.1 It’s also important to get a flu shot before attending a gathering to help protect yourself and your loved ones.

So, whether you’re doing a small in-person gathering or video chatting with family, think about how you might adjust your traditions to lower your risk of getting or spreading COVID-19. Remember to take care of your physical health as well as your mental health throughout the holiday season. And may your days be merry — and healthy and safe.

1Holiday Celebrations,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 21, 2020.

2Erica Hutchins Coe et al., “Returning to Resilience: The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and Substance Use,” McKinsey & Company, April 2, 2020.