The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly complicating families’ plans for many cherished winter holiday traditions, from sitting on Santa's lap for photos at the mall to smooching long-missed grandparents. As coronavirus cases continue to tick up, the risks require extra caution and a science-backed understanding of the virus’ transmission.
But that doesn’t have to mean the holidays are canceled along with all the fun. “Our children should still enjoy this time,” explains Alisa Helfgott, DO, a pediatrician with Northwell Health and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “We should behave safely and responsibly while maintaining a positive attitude. Children will follow our lead."
And, yes, some beloved holiday activities will require a few safety tweaks. But with these tips, families can stay merry and healthy all season long.
Family meals and celebrations
If the holidays typically mean gathering with extended family, this year, the safest bet is to limit the group to immediate family members and stay at home. “Any time we interact with people outside of our own household we increase our risk of contracting and spreading the virus,” Helfgott says.
But that doesn’t mean the larger group can’t convene virtually to share the holiday spirit. Gathering for a virtual meal, sharing family recipes, or taking an online cooking class together during meal preparation are all ways to bond while apart.
If you do choose to gather with a larger family group in person, keep it outdoors if possible, wear masks when not eating, and socially distance yourselves from non-household members (think: separate tables for household groups). If the hosting family is supplying the food, it is best to assign one person to prepare plates in order to limit handling by multiple people. If you do eat indoors, ventilate the space well by keeping the windows open, Helfgott advises.
Also, limit the number of people in the space and the time spent indoors together as these can have major impacts on the potential spread of the virus.
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Traveling to visit family
Unfortunately, any travel increases our chances of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. But different modes of transportation come with varying levels of risk. Driving with household members in an RV with its own sleeping accommodations and restroom (to limit need for rest stops) is likely the safest way to travel. If you’re flying or driving a car to visit loved ones, “staying in a rental home likely confers less risk than renting a hotel room, which in turn is less risky than staying with family inside their home,” the doctor says.
Hugging and kissing grandparents
Grandparents are typically at increased risk for severe cases of COVID just by virtue of their age, so families should strive to protect them while acknowledging everyone’s human need to express and receive love. “Grandparents understandably crave the physical touch of their grandchildren and vice versa,” Helfgott says. “Balancing these medical and emotional needs can be a precarious tightrope to walk.”
As with all interactions, try to convene outdoors, in masks, while distancing.
If kids and grandparents do share physical affection, remain masked and encourage safer approaches. “For a small child, it is safer for them to hug the loved one around the knees, legs, or waist than for the adult to bend down to the child's eye level or pick them up,” she explains. “This avoids their faces being close and of them breathing on each other.” If the child and adult are closer in height, they should turn their heads away from each other while hugging, avoid speaking during the embrace, and keep it short.
Eating or preparing food gifts
Good news here: Eating food you get as a gift or preparing food for others is unlikely to be a major source of coronavirus spread.
“Of course, all possible precautions should be taken when preparing food for others, including making sure you are feeling well, wearing a mask, and practicing vigilant hand hygiene,” Helfgott says.
More reassuring news for the holiday season: Fomites (inanimate surfaces or objects) are not thought to be a common transmission method. Therefore, opening presents should be low risk for kids.
“Theoretically, respiratory droplets from an infected person could land on a surface, another person could touch that surface or object, and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes potentially infecting them with the virus,” she says. “However, this is not widely accepted as a major route of transmission.”
To practice extra caution, wipe the gift with a disinfectant or let it sit for a few days before opening it.
Playing in the snow
Sledding or playing in the snow with household members while socially distanced from non-household members confers low risk for virus transmission. Of course, there are plenty of factors that increase risk and should be avoided. For instance, indoor skating rinks are riskier than outdoor ones. As well, “riding on the same sled with a friend would not be recommended as it does not allow for social distancing,” Helfgott warns, noting that any gleeful yelling would, unfortunately, increase that risk.
But there’s still plenty of fun to be had out there in the wintry wonderland. Masked and socially distanced sled rides or races, making snow angels, or taking turns assembling various parts of a snowman are “a few ways to enjoy time in the snow with friends while mitigating risk,” the pediatrician says.
Sitting on Santa’s lap for pictures
Most retailers will not offer their typical pictures-with-Santa setups, but if an opportunity does present, it’s best to skip it, Helfgott advises. “Children should not be sitting on the lap of an adult that is not a member of their household as it confers an increased risk of contracting and spreading the virus,” she explains. “If parents choose to hire someone or have a friend or neighbor portray Santa for a similar purpose, every attempt should be made to limit risk.” The interaction should occur outdoors with the use of masks and social distancing.
Still, she says, families can get creative to capture fun keepsake photos in safe ways: “Children take their cues from us and the behaviors and attitudes we model for them. If we explain that things are different this year but can nevertheless still be special and fun, children will follow the example our positivity sets.”