Sept. 15, 2020 -- “This year, we’re not having a family gathering because of COVID.”
Like millions of Americans, Judy Ross has had to share that message as so many of us figure out what to do about the upcoming holidays in this age of COVID-19.
Ross, a member of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., says her family usually gathered during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, starting with synagogue.
After that, “we all would gather at my sister-in-law’s house. We have a traditional meal, light the candles before dinner begins, say a prayer, and then wish everybody a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year,” she says.
But the pandemic has changed decades of tradition. Ross will not be going to the synagogue. Clergy-led services will be live-streamed to her home instead. And this year, the cherished family dinner is being replaced.
“What we’ll probably do is a Zoom call with all of the family and relatives.”
It’s been tough for families, says Senior Rabbi Susan Grossman at Beth Shalom Congregation of Columbia, MD, where the High Holidays will all be virtual.
She is telling her congregants that Scripture teaches they should live by traditions, not die by them.
“There are possible ways to get together, but the most important thing is not to endanger health,” she says.
No Easy Answers in 2020
Holiday travel used to be as easy as jumping on a plane or packing up the family car. The only thing to worry about was long lines at the airport or backups on the interstate. But with U.S. cases of COVID-19 closing in on 7 million people and 200,000 deaths, it’s no longer that simple.
Americans want to know whether it’s safe to travel during the upcoming holidays, like Rosh Hashana and Thanksgiving. And if they do decide to have family gatherings, what precautions should they take?
Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, says many things play into that decision, including where you are and who you will be with.
“It really depends on the level of infection in the community where you are,” he said in an interview. “Look at the United States. It’s a big country, but it’s very heterogeneous in the level of infection. There are certain parts of the country at any given time where the infection rate and test positivity are really very low.”
In those settings, Fauci says, “if you do things with a good to modest degree of care, you may be able to congregate indoors for Thanksgiving or for a religious holiday. However, there are certain areas where the level of infection is concerning. And under those circumstances, you may need to take extra precaution.”
Know the Situation
He also says you need to consider who will be there and what their risks may be.
"If you have someone who's a combination of elderly and immunosuppressed with significant underlying conditions, I'd be very careful about having that person in a gathering where there are a lot of people, even with masks,” Fauci says.
The CDC has divided the country into color zones based on the level of infection. Pale yellow means infection is quite low, orange means a modest degree of infection, and red means lots of infection. See the map for yourself here. Be sure and click on “Cases in the Last 7 Days” to get the current picture.
According to Fauci, you’ll need to be extra careful in orange and red zones.
Avoid large crowds if possible, and wear a mask, indoors and out, if you can’t main physical distance from others. “If you have to be inside and you have people who might be congregating close to each other where you can’t maintain that physical distance, then it becomes even more important to wear a mask,” he says “So, you may be able to have family functions, religious functions, but people should at a minimum wear a mask and where possible limit the number of people in any given gathering.”
Travel Carries Risks
Vin Gupta, MD, a pulmonary critical care doctor and assistant professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington Medical Center, believes traveling for the holidays is risky. He says respiratory viruses like COVID-19 like dry, cold climates and transmit more easily in them.
“It would be taking a calculated risk,” he says. “So if I, for instance, couldn’t ensure that I wasn’t harming my family, and if I knew I couldn’t take the strictest precautions, then I wouldn’t go. That is unfortunately the consequence that we all have to live with in the setting of a global pandemic.”
Gupta offers these tips if you plan to attend a gathering:
- Make sure you have no COVID-like symptoms for at least 2 weeks prior to travel.
- Get tested before you travel and, if possible, quarantine at a hotel for at least 48 hours before seeing your loved ones.
- Drive if possible.
- If you fly, travel during off-peak hours, wear a well-fitting mask (N95 if possible), social distance, and make sure the airline is keeping the middle seat open. Take wet wipes to wipe down the back of your seat and tray table, and make sure you have hand sanitizer.
- At the family gathering, cut down on close contact and talking without a mask -- particularly around elderly loved ones.
Other tips include frequent hand-washing, washing your own dishes so that you lessen the chance of cross-contamination or exposure to saliva, doing your own laundry while there, and wiping down common areas like bathrooms.
“The way you would operate in public, operate in private when you’re visiting family members that you don’t normally see, day in and day out, who might be vulnerable.”
Fauci says the fewer people touching food, the better. And if you choose to order out, “order separate servings,” he says “This could be safer than cooking yourself. Avoid platters and serving dishes that are commonly shared. Try to keep servings as separate as possible.”
“You want to minimize cross-contamination, anybody eating directly from shared pots, sharing glasses of liquid, because we know COIVD-19 can be spread through saliva secretions,” Gupta adds
The Turkey Will be Served
For years, Joan Carter-Smith has hosted Thanksgiving at her home in Clarksville, MD. She says this year, she will celebrate the holidays only with her immediate family. She and her husband, along with her daughter and son-in-law, had COVID this summer.
“The question is where,” she says. “Because we’re such a close-knit family and we just enjoy being around each other. If not here at my house, it will be at my daughter’s house because she has much more room.”
The 69-year old mother of four expects about 16 people.
“I only gather with my family. We don’t go to anybody else’s house. It’s just us, so I know that none of us are sick. We were all cleared by the health department, and our results are negative for the second COVID test. I know that if anyone of us is sick, we’re not going to risk being together just for the sake of it.”
Gupta urges caution.
“If people are going to get together, what you don’t want to do is create a superspreader event amongst your own family and friends. And so indoor gatherings of individuals that you don’t shelter in place with, that you’re not sort of huddling with already, you should limit those to just five or less.”
“Because,” he says, “you don’t want a short-sighted, short-term decision to impact or cut short the life of someone you deeply love and who you want to spend many more holidays with.”
Judy Ross hopes for a vaccine soon and looks forward to the day she’ll be able to get together over a meal with family and friends.
“I would not go to a Thanksgiving gathering or dinner during the High Holy Days, and I think if you took a poll, most people would not do it either,” she says. “It’s too risky.”