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Masks and where people sit are two primary safety considerations for holiday gatherings.
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  • Many people are planning large holiday gatherings with COVID-19 safety at the top of the menu.
  • Experts say your safety protocols should start with who gets invitations.
  • How to serve meals and if people should wear masks indoors are other key considerations.
  • Experts say when discussing safety measures with guests, it’s best to focus on making sure everyone feels safe.

Yes, it’s possible to host a safe holiday gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With some consideration around who’s invited, this year’s festivities can actually look more “normal” than this past season.

Experts say we can thank vaccines when sitting around the table with friends and family.

Who to include (and why it matters)

Deciding who to include is one of the most difficult questions of the holiday season, said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, the chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this question, as every situation will be unique,” Gonsenhauser told Healthline.

Experts mention that COVID-19 now primarily affects people who have not been vaccinated, as they have 5 to 10 times higher rates of transmission than vaccinated persons. Unvaccinated people also make up more than 90 percent of all hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19.

“This means that to all people, vaccinated or not, unvaccinated individuals pose the greatest risk of perpetuating the pandemic,” Gonsenhauser said. “Without suitable risk mitigations strategies like mask use and physical distancing, unvaccinated people should be included only if the host and other guests are making an informed decision about these risks.”

Bottom line: If you want to minimize risk, you may not want to invite to your celebration individuals with symptoms, who have chosen not to be vaccinated, or refuse to wear a mask.

How to talk about vaccination status

Keeping guests safe requires a conversation about vaccination status.

“It is not a rude or inconsiderate question, and it is not breaking any HIPAA law, privacy law, or infringing on the doctor/patient relationship,” said Gonsenhauser.

If this is a topic of discussion in your household or friend group, he says it’s important to lead with your “why.”

“Vaccination status has been appropriated as a political signal, but at the end of the day, it’s really about safety and risk. Lead with that,” he said. “Ground the discussion as being about your priority to keep everyone at your celebration objectively safe but also simply feeling safe.”

If you’re talking with people who don’t want to answer or who argue about data, Gonsenhauser suggests kindly reminding them that the data isn’t necessarily consequential.

Tell them that what matters is how people feel and that you are committed to everyone feeling safe first and foremost.

“It’s easy to explain why you are asking one person to volunteer this information… so that the majority of guests can feel safe in attendance,” he said.

Should children be wearing masks?

It depends.

“It is a good idea for those children who have high risk factors or have not been vaccinated to wear masks,” said Gonsenhauser. “We are seeing an increase in the numbers of children severely impacted by COVID-19, and it’s important that we provide them as much protection as we can.”

For those children who have received the first dose of vaccine at least 2 weeks prior to a gathering, they can be considered as having significant but not optimal immunity, he said.

“For these partially vaccinated children, mask use is encouraged,” he said.

Safe meal serving

For celebrations where all or nearly all attendees are vaccinated, meal service and seating can be business as usual, said Gonsenhauser.

“If your celebration is inclusive of unvaccinated individuals, they should be asked to wear masks and you should be sure not to seat them in close proximity to anyone with high risk factors or potentially seat them individually and at an appropriate physical distance,” he said.

“It’s important for all to understand that when one chooses to take actions that may impact the health of those around them, they should expect that those around them will choose to protect themselves,” said Gonsenhauser.

Feeling unsupported or anxious? 

There’s a chance that in some households and social circles, not everyone is going to be supportive of your efforts to host a COVID-19-conscious gathering.

It can be challenging to understand why you’re facing pushback, or why other people’s pandemic anxiety doesn’t match your own.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, the founder of The Inner Mammal Institute as well as a professor emerita at California State University East Bay, and author of “Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop,” explains that anxiety is triggered by neural pathways built from past experiences.

“Neurons connect when the stress hormone known as cortisol flows, and that wires you to release cortisol faster in the future,” Dr. Breuning told Healthline. “So, even when you think it’s today’s events that concern you, your brain is always filtering the world through the lens of old neural networks.”

In other words, each brain believes its own reality because each brain is wired by its own experience.

This is why you may want to consider following Gonsenhauser’s suggestion of sticking to your feelings surrounding keeping people safe rather than discussing data when preparing for holiday gatherings.

“You will have a better holiday if you accept that others have their own concerns based on their own anxiety circuits,” said Breuning. “The holidays are a time to accept those people you’ve chosen to surround yourself with despite their inevitably different wiring.”

 



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