America is approaching some of the most widely celebrated holidays in the country, and guidance released by CDC this week sparked a somber question: As the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus epidemic, should Americans hold or participate in traditional holiday activities and gatherings?
Like many questions pertaining to the coronavirus epidemic, this new query doesn't have a simple "yes" or "no" answer. But by unpacking pervious patterns in coronavirus transmission and considering what the latest scientific data tells us about how the virus spreads, public health experts have offered guidelines for determining whether holiday activities and gatherings are safe—as well as some tips for hosting relatively low-risk celebrations.
What data tells us about holidays, family gatherings, and coronavirus risk
Unfortunately, data on coronavirus transmission rates in America paint a bleak picture about the safety of holiday gatherings and celebrations. The country so far has seen its largest peaks in new coronavirus cases and deaths during the weeks following Memorial Day and the July 4th holiday, and early data suggests the country currently is seeing another spike that may be tied to Labor Day gatherings in some areas.
What's more, contact tracing data has shown that small, close gatherings with families and friends who don't live in the same household have emerged as sources of coronavirus outbreaks in several states. For example, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in late July said contact tracing had revealed that at least 44% of new coronavirus cases in the state at that time were tied to people who reported attending family gatherings, while 23% were tied to people who reported attending house parties.
Beth Blauer, executive director at Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact, this month told CNN's Sandee LaMotte, "We're seeing a lot of evidence that transmission is happening in smaller, family-driven parties."
And public health experts for months now have warned that things could get worse as America heads into the traditional flu season and colder months. That's largely because, while many of us tend to spend our time outside during summer months, we tend to shelter indoors when it's cold outside. And evidence has shown that many viruses, including the novel coronavirus, spread much easier indoors. Further, heated indoor air tends to be dry, which is a more favorable environment for the coronavirus, Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, recently explained to The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker.
Under those circumstances, it would be difficult to control the coronavirus' transmission. As Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Pinsker, "Could I have people over in my house for two hours on a Sunday morning in December? Barring really good testing, probably not." He added, "We know that the biggest risk of spread for this virus is when meaningful numbers of people gather indoors for any extended period of time."
Does that mean holidays are canceled?
All of this doesn’t necessarily mean you should cancel all your holiday plans. For instance, CDC outlined ways to adapt some traditional holiday activities to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.
For instance, the agency said many traditional Halloween activities—including door-to-door trick-or-treating, attending indoor parties or haunted attractions, and wearing costume masks—may pose a high risk of coronavirus transmission. Instead, CDC suggested that people partake in low- or moderate-risk activities, such as carving or decorating pumpkins with members of your household or at a socially distanced, outdoor gathering with others; having virtual Halloween parties; or "[p]articipating in one-way trick-or-treating, where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard)."
When it comes to Thanksgiving, CDC advised that Americans avoid long distance travel and attending crowded parades, stores, and gatherings. Instead, the agency recommended having a small gathering only with people who live in your household; having a virtual Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends; or having a small, socially distanced, outdoor gathering with family and friends who live in your community.
As we've previously noted in Daily Briefing, you also need to consider the level of risk you're comfortable with and the various factors that impact your risk level.
For example, it's important to evaluate any risks that could be posed by the location and nature of the activity or gathering, the risk of potentially contracting the new coronavirus from people you may have contact with, the caseload in your local area, and your own personal risk factors. CDC recommends that people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus or are experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, as well as those who are at high risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19, not attend in-person activities or gatherings.
- Levels of coronavirus transmission in the community where the activity or gathering is occurring;
- The activity's or gathering's location, such as the size of the venue and whether there is good ventilation;
- The activity or gathering's duration;
- The number of people attending the activity or gathering;
- Levels of coronavirus transmission in the community where attendees are traveling from;
- Whether attendees have been taking precautions to protect themselves against coronavirus transmission before participating in the activity or gathering; and
- Whether attendees will take precautions to protect themselves against coronavirus transmission during the activity or gathering.
CDC also noted that Americans should follow state and local laws and rules regarding holiday activities and gatherings.
Remember, low risk doesn't mean no risk—and your choices can have wide-ranging effects
But it's important to remember that low risk doesn't mean no risk, and public health experts maintain that the safest way to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus is to continue being good stewards of practices that can mitigate the virus' spread: frequent hand washing; wearing face masks or coverings; keeping at least six feet of distance between you and people who don't live in your household; avoiding being in crowded, indoor spaces; and limiting your time in public spaces.
As Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told LaMottee, "The more we travel, the more we interact with people, the more opportunities there are for exposure." She added, "It's really best that we try to limit our movement as much as possible."
And officials also stress that, even if your own family isn't severely affected by the coronavirus because of holiday gatherings and celebrations, it's possible those events could spark outbreaks that extend to others in the community who may develop severe cases or die from the infection. As Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) recently said, "One person, one contact can light a match and spark a fire that we may be unable to put out."
But although holidays will need to look different this year, Sandra Albrecht, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told The Guardian's Lauren Aratani and Jessica Glenza that it's important we still celebrate. "[The holidays are] important for mental health, it's part of life and enjoying life. We want to make sure that people are able to enjoy the holidays, but safely so that we're not contributing to transmission of Covid."