How to Safely Visit Family This Holiday Season

Here's how to navigate Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holiday gatherings during the pandemic.

By Leslie Nemo
Oct 16, 2020 5:55 PMOct 27, 2020 6:30 PM
holiday coronavirus shutterstock
(Credit: Andrew Angelov/Shutterstock)


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Late fall and early winter typically mean a flurry of holiday travel and get-togethers for a lot of people. But this year will be anything but normal. Making plans is more than a matter of shopping around for flight prices or car rental fees. Many of us are probably also asking ourselves whether to stay home or see loved ones, and how to stay safe at holiday gatherings.

For the lowest risk of spreading or becoming sick with COVID-19, not traveling is the way to go. However, there might be loved ones who desperately need companionship in the coming months. “There are situations where people will choose, and choose correctly, to go and support those family members,” says Lin H. Chen, director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital and president of the International Society of Travel Medicine. No matter if you’re going cross-country to see siblings or staying at home with your dog, experts say, remember two things: Plan ahead and stay flexible.

Tackle Logistics First

For those interested in interstate travel, first assess whether or not those plans are feasible. The states you’re going to (and coming back to) might have rules about isolating yourself for two weeks once you arrive. If you live in one of those states but a two-week isolation period isn’t feasible — because you have to go to work or send kids to school, for example — then traveling for the holidays won’t work for you, says Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an infectious disease doctor at Tufts Medical Center. Some states say that isolation requirements don’t apply if you get a negative COVID test. But testing you or your whole family may lie outside your budget if the exams aren’t covered by insurance, Andujar Vazquez says. Factor those financial decisions into your travel plans, too.

If you do decide to travel, choose driving over flying if you can. Busy rest stops might mean confronting crowds of other highway travelers, Chen says. However, compared to the entire process of flying — getting to an airport and waiting in lines repeatedly — driving likely means fewer crowds overall. “Think about precautions through this journey,” Chen says, “not just on the plane, train, bus or car.”

Airplanes themselves receive a lot of attention as potential virus spreaders. But Chen says there are three instances of infected individuals spreading the disease to two or more people on a flight. Those transmissions happened before any airline required passengers to wear masks. Since then, other interventions like leaving seats open, disinfecting often and updated air filtration have been introduced on airplanes, too. Though there’s no data yet on how effective these combined intervention strategies are, “the fact that we haven’t heard about [significant] masked transmission on recent flights is also reassuring,” Chen says. 

On the Big Day

Odds are you’re debating travel plans for the sake of a big family meal. Or even if you’re staying local, you might try and work something out with friends and relatives nearby. Both Chen and Andujar Vazquez emphasize that no matter which you choose, keep up the COVID-19 precautions once you’re all together. Generally, the smaller the gathering (and the fewer number of households), the better. Keep activities outdoors if you can, seat groups apart, and keep masks on while not eating. You might also consider new ways to keep everyone fed. The typical buffet serving style can mean a lot of utensil sharing, so maybe opt for single-serving portioning or have everyone wash or sanitize hands before and after touching communal dishes. And as fun as it might be to play bartender, maybe choose a BYOB policy as well. Oh, and “no one should be coming sick,” Andujar Vazquez says. “You cannot say that enough.”

These might sound like a lot of holiday modifications, which is why it’s important to discuss what the situation will look like before coming together. “People have to feel comfortable talking about these things, because it’s part of our daily life now,” Andujar Vazquez says. “Have that conversation before the event happens so people don’t have unexpected surprises or feel unsafe with some sort of behavior.”

At the same time, acknowledge that even the most careful planning might fall apart. Your destination might become a COVID-19 hotspot days before you’re set to arrive, or you or someone in your gathering might start feeling unwell ahead of time. Though it’s easier said than done, accept that plans will change whether you want them to or not — and that celebrations in the coming months will look different than they used to. “Realistically, this holiday season is going to be difficult for a lot of people,” says Jonathan Kanter, psychologist and director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington. 

In individuals coping with significant life changes, one of the best predictors of depression is whether or not people can leave former goals behind and adopt new ones, Kanter says. Letting go of old expectations — like how you normally gather with family, for example — can involve a kind of grieving process. But recalibrating what you want to get out of a situation is an essential coping skill. “You won’t be able to get there unless you breathe and accept that you’re in a new context,” Kanter says. “With that acceptance, hopefully there's a lot of creativity and innovation and grace about how to make it as successful as possible.”

The prospect of not seeing loved ones in the coming months might make some people nervous, for themselves and for others. What's important to remember is that it's possible to make it through — and that future holidays will get better.

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