How to Navigate the Holidays During the Pandemic

Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Ngozi Ezike from the Illinois Department of Health recommend that families cancel Thanksgiving plans as part of a stay-at-home advisory that goes into effect Nov. 16 and remains for at least 30 days.

Lightfoot’s advisory isn’t an order, but comes as Illinois authorities have halted indoor dining amidst rising COVID-19 positive cases.

That makes keeping traditions alive during the holiday season even more difficult. This year, parents will need to do some creative thinking and take a lot of precautions, says pediatric infectious disease specialist Colleen Nash, a doctor at Rush University Medical Center who spoke with Chicago Parent before the mayor delivered her advisory.

“It only takes one person to take down a whole party, even if it’s six people, 10 people or 12 people,” Nash says. “Even if it’s just close family and friends, there’s not a fail safe. We’ve seen plenty of contact tracing that shows that in trusted family and friend circles, one person can infect many more.”

On Nov. 11, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued recommendations for residents of the state to remain at home unless going to work, the grocery store, the pharmacy or the doctor. While a stay-at-home order wasn’t issued, the strong recommendation came as the state’s coronavirus positivity numbers were rising sharply.

“In our current situation, with a rising prevalence of the virus, attending even small gatherings that mix households, or traveling to areas that are experiencing high rates of positivity, is not advised and is potentially dangerous,” IDPH says in the release.

Keep masks on in gatherings

Nash’s top recommendation is to maintain distance from members outside your immediate family. Families that insist on spending the December holidays together should mimic the precautions taken in schools and hospitals: masks on unless you’re eating, and then eat only with members of your own household, placing tables six feet away from family and friends you don’t spend every day with.

“Even cracking windows and wearing extra layers, and when you are not actively eating your mask is on. Period. End of story,” Nash says. “That’s really the only setting I can wrap my head around being reasonably safe, and that’s a lot of work and not a lot of fun.”

For families that choose to gather together at a holiday, don’t rely specifically on rapid testing in advance for a sense of security, Nash warns.

“The testing on that day provides you information for if you are shedding the virus or not at that specific time,” Nash says. “It does not say anything about even 12 hours later, the next day or the day after that. So if you’re tested on Monday, hoping to get your results on Wednesday so that you can see your family on Wednesday night or Thursday, you know your status and what it was on Monday. So you could have been exposed at any point and just not started to shed virus.”

As coronavirus cases began to spike in October, gatherings were limited to no more than 25 people in Chicago and the suburban counties. With the new advisory, gatherings are limited to no more than 10.

Prepare kids for holiday changes

If all of that sounds like too much, or your family has already planned to keep the holidays confined to your immediate household, doctors suggest to make sure that kids are emotionally prepared. Just like your family did at Halloween, warn your kids that this year will be a different holiday experience.

Janet Yarboi, a clinical child psychologist at Rush University Medical Center, reminds parents that their attitude can help frame the acceptance of changes for their kids.

“In situations where there is a lot of uncertainty, kids, especially little kids, will look to their parents to see how they should be processing the situation,” says Yarboi in a release from Rush. “Parents should validate their child’s feelings of sadness or frustration, letting them know it’s OK to feel that way, but also redirect them to something more positive to keep them from falling into the trap of negative thinking.”

Yarboi recommends letting kids pick something new to try this year, like a dish to make for Thanksgiving or trying a time-honored family activity a little different (like putting out the holiday decorations a week or two earlier).

Plane travel

If your family chooses to fly during the holidays, Nash says that parents need to remember to be hyper-vigilant about making sure kids keep a mask on and limit touching surfaces in an airport and on a plane.

“I think parents have to evaluate how much they can control what their kids touch and do (in an airport) because you have to mitigate contact as much as you can. I would not get on a plane without a mask 110 percent of the time, and I don’t like to touch things on a plane baseline, so this just heightens that,” Nash says. “Then you have to think about the situation of once you get there and then coming back into Illinois or Chicago, what that means in terms of your obligation to quarantine.”

Top tips

The key is remembering that even if you feel fine or your kids feel fine, in the case of COVID-19, it’s a community effort to keep everyone safe.

“There’s no fail safe at this point and we’re going into the holidays at an upward trajectory in cases, and the rate is alarming,” Nash says. “We could see explosive numbers if we’re not careful.”

Rush Hospital doctors released tips to safely enjoy the holiday season:

  • Wear a mask, even around family members outside of your immediate household.
  • Wash your hands after you cough, sneeze or eat.
  • Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact (been within six feet for 15 minutes or more) with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Limit travel.
  • If you really have to see Santa, consider a porch meeting, a phone call, a Zoom call, mailing letters or a socially distanced visit.
  • Consider volunteering from home, and contact local charities for recommendations of how your family can help this season as makers.
  • Order takeout for holiday meals.

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This story originally published on on Nov. 9, 2020. It has been updated with the most recent information.

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