Holiday gatherings in 2020: Health experts provide tips to safely navigate the holidays during a pandemic

No one wants Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings to turn into superspreader events. Learn how to host or attend holiday gatherings safely. Start with this simple advice: think small.
Oct. 21, 2020
Holiday gatherings in 2020 will need to be smaller and safer, like this celebration outside. A person hands green beans over a turkey at a table outdoors.
Holiday gatherings in 2020 will need to be more intimate. For Thanksgiving and beyond, celebrate with the people in your household or enjoy a small gathering outside. Photo: Getty Images.

Holiday gatherings in 2020 won’t be large, Norman Rockwell affairs.

Whether your Thanksgiving tradition centers around elegant china, polished silver and a perfect roasted turkey or a more casual gathering with chaos, crowds and a potluck, brace yourself.

Thanksgiving will have to be different this year.

Amidst the worst pandemic in a century, holiday gatherings in 2020 will have to cater to smaller guest lists and emphasize practicality, intimacy, simplicity, and gratitude.

Yes, gratitude.

This year has been a tough one. It has brought us COVID-19, unprecedented wildfires, and deep political divisions. We can be thankful that it’s almost over. Maybe 2021 will bring us a vaccine and a glorious reboot that puts the coronavirus into our rearview mirrors.

So, how should you host Thanksgiving or decide on plans during such a challenging time?

Plan for smaller holiday gatherings

For now, think small.

The CDC tips for a safe Thanksgiving gathering include:

  • Enjoying a small dinner only with people who live in your household.
  • Preparing traditional family recipes for relatives and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others.
  • Celebrating a virtual dinner and sharing recipes with friends and family.
  • Shopping online rather than in person on the day after Thanksgiving or the following Monday.
  • Watching sports events, parades, and movies from home.

If you normally meet up with 30 friends and family members, think again. If you typically travel across the country or elsewhere in your region, navigating packed planes, trains and automobiles, consider nixing those plans.

Big holiday gatherings and far-flung trips simply won’t be safe this year. COVID-19 infections are on the rise and gatherings indoors could put you at risk of hosting or attending a superspreader event.

Embrace your power to say ‘no’

While COVID-19 is hijacking our holiday gatherings, there’s one hidden benefit. If your Thanksgiving plans typically require you to smile and politely chat with acquaintances or relatives who drive you crazy or pontificate endlessly about politics, you’re off the hook this year. You can simply cite COVID-19 health guidelines as your excuse to skip holiday gatherings this year. Just tell those you’d rather avoid that health experts are advising you to stay home and celebrate with members of your household this year.

Dr. Michelle Barron, one of the leading infectious disease experts in Colorado, hereby gives you permission to turn down any and all invitations that make you the least bit uncomfortable.

“If you have any doubts, this is the year to skip it,” Barron said. “The potential consequences of you bringing flu or COVID-19 to your family holiday gathering or acquiring it and bringing it back home afterwards isn’t worth it.”

Barron knows that we’re all tired of 2020. We’re yearning for life to get back to normal. We may be tempted to cut some corners when it comes to being careful about COVID-19.

But, she’s urgently calling on people to be as careful as ever. Wear masks. Wash hands. Avoid large groups and indoor gatherings. Practice social distancing and stay home whenever possible. Help drive the infection rates down now.

Dr. Michelle Barron is urging people to enjoy safe holiday gatherings this year. Feel free to turn down invitations for large gatherings. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

“Everybody just wants to enjoy social interactions so much,” Barron said. “I know. I get it. I haven’t seen my parents in over a year and I desperately want to see them.”

But Barron knows that the virus that causes COVID-19 is like any other virus for which humans have no immunities. It’s sneaky and opportunistic and she doesn’t want it to hitch a ride with her to her folks.

“If I got them sick, I could never forgive myself. Or, if I brought it home, that would be terrible,” Barron said.

Go for intimacy: Avoid large holiday gatherings and make the most of tiny affairs

This year, staying close to home and keeping your holiday gatherings small is the best way to stay safe.

“Unless you have the ability to stay separate and distance outside, keep it small,” Barron said.

Make the most of a more intimate gathering. If you’ve always wanted to shake up the menu or you’ve had to please a fussy crowd in the past, cook exactly what you want this year. Don’t be afraid to create some fun, new traditions.

Barron grew up on the Texas border with Mexico. She loves Mexican food and when she has time, makes homemade tortillas and a mean salsa from scratch. If you love turkey, but also enjoy some kick, you could draw inspiration from Barron’s culinary style and enjoy turkey tacos this year.

Or, ditch the turkey and eat Italian, Thai or whatever tickles your taste buds.

If you’re not a fan of Aunt Trudy’s famous green bean casserole, skip it this year. Love marshmallows? Fine. You can cover your sweet potatoes in super sweet white stuff. Hate them? Add pecans and other confections into your yams instead.

This is the year to celebrate freedom on Thanksgiving (as long as you do so safely, outdoors and wearing masks).

Be practical and endure the cold: Hold holiday gatherings outside

If you are determined to get together with a very small group of people who don’t live in your household, meet with them outside. Volunteer together — from a safe distance —  to deliver food to hungry people. Have fun afterwards with a game of Frisbee or flag football in a park.

Yes, it’s likely to be cold on Thanksgiving, but we’re tough. We can handle it.

If you’re dining outside, meet for a late lunch when temperatures will be warmer than the evening. (Click here to see advice from CDC experts on how to safely gather with people outdoors.)

You can dress like you’re headed to the ski slopes. Wear layers. Add a hat and gloves. And hosts or guests can provide freshly laundered blankets to guests.

You can gather around an outdoor fireplace, or if you can find one for sale, buy yourself a patio heater. If you’re mindful of all the safety protocols, you can cook a delicious turkey outside on the grill, smoker or in a bubbling vat of peanut oil. (It’s delicious and surprisingly little of the oil penetrates the turkey.)

Follow the rules

If you are absolutely determined to gather indoors with family or friends outside of your household, then you have to follow the rules religiously. First, everyone needs to get a flu shot. Next, copy the protocols that the National Basketball Association used. Require everyone to get tested before the group comes together. Then once you have gotten negative COVID-19 test results, all the members of the pod have to prioritize one another’s safety and avoid any unnecessary exposures. That means that trips to public places like bars, restaurants, salons, gyms and stores are out.

“Everyone has to agree to self-quarantine for about 10 days prior to the gathering and limit who they are around. Form a bubble. It’s a big commitment. That’s why some athletes opted out this year. It was going to be too hard,” Barron said.

Invoke gratitude. Remember those who have endured sacrifices throughout history.

Social isolation stinks. There’s no doubt about it.

But, we are enduring hardship for one holiday season (hopefully!). Others have made it much longer.

Barron draws inspiration and perspective by thinking about how Europeans handled Nazi attacks during World War II.

“They had to deal with nightly bombings. We should consider ourselves blessed, even now,” Barron said. “Our worst scenario is that we have to avoid in-person gatherings and do the holidays instead on Zoom. It’s annoying. It’s inconvenient. It’s unfortunate.”

But, says Barron, “It’s not catastrophic.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.