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How are families handling holiday travel in 2020?

Weighing the risks with the urge to see loved ones this year.

This holiday season, many families are asking themselves how they can connect with loved ones while avoiding the health risks associated with the continued spread of COVID-19. Is it possible to visit the grandparents this year, or will you have to make holiday memories through a laptop or phone screen? Is it safe to attend a holiday dinner, or is it too risky to share a meal?

“The best way to completely minimize risk right now is to stay home,” says Andrew Roszak, Executive Director for the Institute for Childhood Preparedness and former Health Policy Fellow for the United States Senate Budget and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees. “However, given that all of us have been under stay-at-home orders for several months, it is understandable that many will have a desire to spend some time with families and return to some sense of normalcy.”

What does that mean for your 2020 holiday celebrations? Should you travel to see loved ones, or stay at home and connect over Zoom for your holiday party? We know that the best way to stay safe over the holidays is to celebrate only with the members of your immediate household, but are there ways to reduce the risks of holiday travel? What are the best holiday safety tips for hosting a small gathering of family and friends in your home?

Let’s take a look at some of the questions families might be asking themselves this holiday season — and bring in some expert holiday safety advice to help you plan your seasonal celebrations.

In this article:

Should you travel?

“This year I am recommending traveling only if it is absolutely necessary,” says Dr. Nikhil Agarwal, Lead Physician at WellMed. The CDC offers similar advice: “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.” (This advice was for Thanksgiving, but is applicable no matter the holiday.)

Many people have already canceled their holiday travel plans — but some people may still be wondering whether it’s possible to reduce some of the risks associated with a holiday trip. If you’re currently weighing the potential risks and benefits associated with packing everyone into the car or booking a holiday flight, you might want to start by looking up info on the area to which you might be traveling.

“If you are considering a trip, it is a good idea to conduct a little research prior to leaving the house,” says Roszak. “Several areas still have restrictions on which businesses may be open or requirements for individuals arriving from out-of-town.” Chicago, for example, has strict rules requiring travelers to either quarantine for 14 days or provide negative COVID test results.

Roszak also suggests taking a look at the case levels in the area you’re planning to visit. “If an area is experiencing a recent surge in cases, you may want to rethink your trip.”

On the subject of case counts: Don’t be the person who brings new COVID-19 cases with you. “Absolutely avoid travel if you have any symptoms suggestive of COVID or flu,” says Agerwal — even if you’ve already planned the trip, booked the flights and tagged the luggage. This is one year where it’s much better to be safe than sorry.

“The best way to completely minimize risk right now is to stay home.”

—Andrew Roszak, Executive Director for the Institute for Childhood Preparedness

What can you do to reduce your risk while traveling?

If you’ve decided you’re going to travel this year and want to keep your COVID-19 transmission risk as low as possible, ask yourself whether it is possible to get where you’re going by car. “Use private transport as much as possible, especially if traveling with younger kids,” Agarwal says.

If you can complete your travel in a single day while minimizing time spent in gas stations, restaurants and so on, you’ll be reducing some of the risk that comes with interacting with people outside of your immediate household. “Plan out routes to minimize the number of times you need to stop for food and gas,” advises Roszak. “It is much safer packing food from home and eating in the car, versus stopping at restaurants or trying to find food along your path.”

Roszak also suggests avoiding public restrooms — which might be easier said than done, especially if you are traveling with small children. “Public bathrooms contain a lot of high-touch surfaces,” Roszak says. “If you do find yourself needing to use a public restroom, be cautious about the number of surfaces you are touching. Be sure to wash your hands or apply hand sanitizer.”

If you can only get where you’re going via plane, Agarwal wants you to take a direct flight. Every layover and airport transfer puts you in contact with more and more people, so pick a plane trip that minimizes those types of interactions (even if that means paying more for your tickets). “Follow strict safety measures with masks, social distancing and hand sanitization,” Agarwal recommends.

Keep in mind that even strict safety measures don’t completely prevent the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Tom Kenyon, who served for 21 years at the CDC before becoming the Chief Health Officer at Project Hope, offers the following advice: “When it comes to flying, travelers should be aware of the risks. While frequent cleaning, air filtering, face coverings and no-contact services help, the fact is: Being indoors among a crowd is unavoidable on a commercial plane, as is the potential for long exposure periods.”

Should you host people in your home?

Families who aren’t planning to travel over the holidays may wonder whether it’s safe to hold a small holiday gathering in their home. If grandparents, close friends or quarantine pod members live nearby, is it possible to meet up for a shared holiday meal or other type of celebration?

Public health experts urge caution. “Small household gatherings are increasingly causing coronavirus to spread, particularly in the U.S.,” Kenyon says. Roszak agrees: “By far the safest thing you can do at this point is to stay home and stay away from individuals outside of your immediate household.”

That said, many families have spent this fall navigating the risks of other types of in-person activities, from letting kids attend school for a few days each week to celebrating Halloween with a trusted circle of friends. If you are considering taking on the risk of having a few of those trusted friends or family members over for the holidays — and again, the experts urge you not to do so — here’s how you can reduce the health hazards.

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What are some ways to hold a safer holiday gathering?

If you want to host a safer holiday gathering in your home, start by taking the entire celebration outside. The CDC recommends hosting a small outdoor meal with friends or family who live in your immediate neighborhood or community. The number of guests should be limited, and the host should communicate expectations to guests ahead of time — wear masks, remain at least six feet apart and bring your own food and drink.

“Outdoor activity is without question safer than indoor activity,” says Roszak. “A recent study suggested that 8 out of 10 [coronavirus] infections were caused by exposure at indoor venues — such as churches, restaurants, gyms, cafes, supermarkets, and other crowded indoor spaces.”

If an outdoor meal isn’t an option, the CDC notes that an indoor meal can be made safer by opening windows to allow for increased ventilation. Roszak agrees: “Air circulation has a big impact on the coronavirus — so the fresher air, the better.”

Likewise, if your guests want to bring food to share instead of only bringing food for themselves, the CDC recommends having one person serve the food and letting guests eat the meal with single-use, disposable utensils — but the CDC also notes that hosting a contactless potluck, in which each guest deposits a small serving of a beloved holiday dish on the doorstep of everyone in the potluck group before eating together over Skype or Zoom, is even safer than sharing food in person.

How can you create the safest possible holiday celebration?

What is the best way to keep your holidays safe in 2020? Here’s the official advice from the CDC: “Celebrate at home with the people you live with.” This means avoiding holiday interactions with anybody outside of your immediate household, even if friends and relatives live in the same city — or even the same neighborhood.

For some families, this type of celebration might be easy — and it might even be a way to reduce holiday stress and create new holiday traditions. For other families, the idea of staying home for the holidays and only connecting with grandparents and loved ones over Zoom might be more difficult to accept.

Which means we have to be realistic, pragmatic and honest with ourselves. Most of us want to do our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and very few of us want to participate in a holiday party or celebration that might endanger someone else’s life. That said, many of us have spent this past year carefully evaluating the risks and benefits of our daily activities — taking the subway, visiting a restaurant that offers outdoor seating, setting up a quarantine pod so that kids can have the opportunity to socialize and learn

Now that the holidays are on the horizon, you may find yourself making similar risk/benefit evaluations — but this time, you might feel a little more anxiety about your decision-making. Don’t let the pressures of the holiday season prompt you to take risks you aren’t comfortable with. Since some of those risks may depend on where you live (and where you might be thinking about visiting), talk to a local healthcare professional if you have questions about holiday travel, at-home gatherings or any other aspect of the holiday season.

If you want to stay as safe as possible, follow the CDC’s advice and holiday safety tips: Stay home, limit your in-person interactions to the people in your household, and work with the people you love — in your immediate household or online — to create a memorable holiday experience for everyone you wish you could be celebrating with. If this means skipping this year’s holiday celebrations to help ensure you can celebrate together next year, and for years to come, so be it.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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