The strangest, most confusing, most taxing year we Americans have collectively trundled through is about to get even more complicated: We now all have to figure out what to do about the upcoming holidays. Should we gather indoors as usual, where we’ll most readily spread the virus? Gather outdoors in the cold, where we’re safer? Tell our families we won’t be seeing them this year except at a distance on FaceTime or Zoom?
“There is no easy answer,” says Aderonke Pederson, a psychiatrist and behavioral scientist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s a difficult situation to be in.”
It’s especially difficult considering that the US is now seeing a third massive spike in cases, that traveling brings its own risks of transmission, and that Covid-19 is a far deadlier disease among the elderly, who are a part of many family gatherings. The safest thing you can do is to just stay home. But because that may be a difficult choice for many families, WIRED asked the experts how to talk with your relatives about the risks of in-person gatherings.
First things first: Talk to your family about the holidays ASAP. “Start the conversations now, because we’re a month away,” says Pederson. Find a way to speak comfortably about your concerns, she says, “because at the end of the day, while we’re trying to protect ourselves, we’re also trying to encourage our family members to protect themselves, too.”
To be very clear: There is no such thing as a perfectly safe way for families to gather, over the holidays or otherwise. SARS-CoV-2 is a highly infectious virus, so no in-person interaction is risk-free. But there are gradients to this risk: Outdoors is better than indoors, masks worn at all times are better than bare faces, distance is better than hugs. And the fewer people, the better: California health officials suggest restricting holiday gatherings to three households for no more than a few hours, while Colorado has a two-household limit.
“The headline is that the things that you do to keep yourself safe in public from strangers apply to the family with whom you’re gathering,” says Benjamin Singer, a critical care physician and pulmonologist at Northwestern Medicine. “Because for the purposes of transmission, your extended family that you’re visiting are strangers. They’re still people who aren’t in your household.” That means the 6-foot social distancing rule you’ve been using at the grocery store also applies at your relatives’ house. Yes, that would be awkward, but necessary.
But what about testing in advance? It’s true that families can take some steps to mitigate risks in a way that you can’t with total strangers in public spaces. For example, you can all agree to get tested before gathering and only convene if everyone tests negative.
Yet that doesn’t eradicate the risk or mean that it’s safe to gather indoors, where the risk of transmission is normally highest. That’s because people can become infected between the day that they test and the day that their results arrive. Additionally, people in the early stages of a Covid-19 infection can test negative at first but still be infectious later, whether or not they ever show symptoms.
For example, say that you’re unwittingly exposed to the coronavirus on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and you get a test Tuesday that comes back negative. You arrive at your family’s house Wednesday and celebrate on Thursday. To your horror, on Friday you start showing symptoms of Covid-19. “It’s probably somewhere around five to seven days after you’re exposed where your test is going to be positive, and then you start having symptoms,” says Singer. So even a person with a negative test on Tuesday, he says, is “actually probably able to spread the virus at the table during Thanksgiving.”