Safe Family Gatherings and Travel this Holiday Season

Publication Date
November 29, 2021

As we approach the holiday season, many families are concerned about navigating family gatherings within the reality of our new normal. You may have relatives or friends who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear a mask or social distance.Father and son in a field with pine trees. Father is carrying his son and they are both laughing. This may be a heightened concern for parents with children too young to be vaccinated. If you plan to get together for a holiday gathering, your family/group will need to decide if people are going to be invited if they won’t comply with the group’s parameters.

Do we give up family traditions and cancel the holiday gatherings again this year? Is getting together worth the risk?

Before you cancel everything, check out these tips for staying safe and enjoying family time.

  • Assess the traditional plan. If 30 family members usually gather at grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, you should probably make some adjustments. If your tradition is a small family gathering, very few changes may be required. Families with high risk or immune compromised adults or unvaccinated children may choose to host virtual events. For others, getting together is worth a calculated risk with a few adjustments.
    • Consider Zoom, Facetime, Facebook, or Instagram Live to include family members who can’t join in person.
  • Establish guidelines in advance to reduce stress and hard feelings later. While the vaccine may be a hot-button topic, discussion of safety precautions and expectations are important to have. Host a free Zoom call with adult family members to talk through a plan that addresses mask wearing, hugging, food serving, and other expectations.
    • Depending on the circumstances, it may be reasonable to suggest that each family limit external exposure for 10 days prior to gathering. In an ideal situation, everyone will understand the importance of the discussion and come to an agreement.
    • Once an agreement is established, the adults need to take responsibility for ensuring the children are aware of and adhere to the established guidelines.
  • Be thoughtful about travel plans to minimize risk and stay safe. Although many people are torn between concerns regarding risks and the need to see family members they have been isolated from, demand for travel is up for this holiday season.
    • If you’re driving with only immediate family in the car, the risk will be mostly limited to any exposure when you stop for food, gas, or restroom breaks. Being thoughtful about mask usage, hand washing, and social distancing during stops will keep risk at a minimum.
    • If you have to fly or travel by bus or train, the risk increases, especially if traveling with children. Masks are required for children over 2 years of age when traveling on public transportation.
    • The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) offers additional travel safety tips for various travel modes.
  • Consider accommodation options. Where you plan to stay is another decision that should be discussed in advance to avoid hurt feelings. If multiple families stay at grandma’s house, like a giant Christmas pajama party, risk increases. You might consider getting a hotel room or an Airbnb or other vacation rental this year.
    • Although the requirements for hotels may vary from state to state, most still have COVID protocols in place, which gives you control of your surroundings, assuming you aren’t hanging out in the common areas.
    • Vacation rentals allow even more control over environment and less exposure to others. These options can also provide a nice respite from extended family at the end of a busy day.
  • Plan activities to minimize risk. Smaller groups with limited exposure offer less risk than large groups for a longer period. Consider dividing larger groups into a brunch gathering and dinner gathering. Host gatherings outside if the weather is cooperative. Include some outdoors activities and sneak in a little exercise after the big family meal.
    • Incorporate hand sanitizer into your favorite holiday centerpiece as a fun reminder.
    • Instead of serving buffet style where everyone touches the serving utensils, designate a couple of adults to “fix plates” for each guest.
    • Consider scheduling an outing to a local park. Tossing a frisbee, taking a short hike or even just chilling on a park bench watching the children play can boost your health and reduce feelings of isolation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this pandemic has been rough for many people -- mentally, physically, and financially. If your holiday traditions include gift exchanges, suggest the group set a dollar limit for presents. Consider making a family rule that all gifts this year should be homemade. It reduces the risk of virus exposure while shopping and would also help family members who may be suffering financially. It can be a great family activity too! I don’t know any grandma that wouldn’t prefer a plaster handprint over another vase! What about a handmade Christmas Card with a child’s picture and a personal note? Homemade treats like pretzels dipped in chocolate or fresh baked cookies are always a favorite! Country Living offers lots of crafty and creative ideas including homemade snow globes!

You should also plan to shop early, even for online shopping. Supply chain shortages and lack of workers have been challenging the retail industry this year. Additionally, all carriers including USPS, UPS and FedEx continue to have slower transit times due to increased volume and lower staffing.

Although the 2021 holiday season may be less isolating than last year, it may not yet feel like the good old times you remember from pre-COVID times --- but with a little vigilance, it can still be filled with fun and meaningful family gatherings. However, if Black Friday Shopping or Christmas Day movie going are your usual traditions, well…you might want to scratch that and switch to online shopping (Cyber Monday) and Netflix this year!

Best wishes for safe and happy holidays!

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