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How to hold a safe family holiday celebration in spite of COVID-19

mom and daughter stay warm in winter

This year, the holiday season may feel a little different. Rather than travelling to see loved ones or breaking bread with friends and family, many of us are keeping a safe distance to help keep everyone safe from the dangers of COVID-19.

That doesn’t mean COVID-19 is cancelling the holiday season. Instead, we are all trying to reimagine holiday traditions — sending matching socks, ugly sweaters and comfortable scarves that each family member can wear on that special, celebratory day.

According to a recent survey, approximately 1 in 4 Canadians do not plan to host a holiday celebration this year. Instead, they will only spend holiday time with immediate family members and will use technology to keep in touch with loved ones during the season.

For those determined to host family gatherings during the holidays, it’s important to understand the risks involved. Only then can you take the necessary precautions.

We have all sacrificed so much during 2020, but we can finally see a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. A vaccine is on its way, and that’s fantastic news; however, over this holiday season, we must remain vigilant. To help minimize the risk of exposure and spread, here are some tips for celebrating the holidays this season.

Minimize large, social gatherings

According to survey results, 42% of Canadians plan on attending a social gathering with no more than six people in attendance, while 56% of Canadians are either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to attend a social gathering with more than seven people this holiday season.

While 53% of respondents shared that this number was either slightly or significantly fewer than the number of attendees in previous years, 35% reported plans for attending social gatherings with either slightly or many more people in attendance.

According to the U.S.-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention, big year-end holiday celebrations are “high-risk activities.”

Even before entering the holiday season, COVID-19 cases were starting to spike as more people travelled and gathered for American Thanksgiving. The same pattern emerged in Canada, with a spike in reported infections shortly after Canadian Thanksgiving.

Since adding just one person from another household can dramatically increase the risk of spread, most provincial jurisdictions have now banned gatherings with anyone outside your immediate household members, with a few exceptions.

Wear a mask

Research published by the University of California San Francisco reveals that hundreds of tiny droplets are dispersed into the air when someone utters a simple phrase. But when a damp washcloth is used as a barrier over the mouth, nearly all of the droplets are blocked. Another study revealed that people with the flu or a cold who wear masks while symptomatic are significantly less contagious. 

Research published in Health Affairs involved tracking the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 states. Five days after lawmakers approved the mandates, the growth rate slowed by 0.9%. Three weeks after mask-wearing was made mandatory, the daily rate of growth had slowed by 2%.

Yet, only 34% of Canadians who plan to host a holiday celebration will provide masks for their guests. Instead, the majority of holiday hosts plan on asking attendees to bring their own masks — with 66% of Canadians intending to ask guests to wear a mask.

While guests will need to take off their masks to eat and drink, it’s best to ask everyone to wear a mask at all other times, particularly if sharing space indoors.

Practise safe hygiene

Another important weapon in the fight against COVID-19 during the holidays is good hygiene. According to a 2008 study, we can cut the spread of respiratory infections by more than 20% if we all wash our hands regularly. Good handwashing practice includes using soap and leaving it on for at least 30 seconds while washing between fingers as well as halfway up the arm. (In other words, scrub like a surgeon.)

Another good strategy is to set up holiday celebrations to maximize space and minimize contact.

For instance:

  • 38% of Canadians plan on providing hand sanitizer (or gloves) to all attendees;
  • 27% of Canadians plan on setting up a dining area in a larger room, such as a rec-room, in order to provide guests more space;
  • 17% of Canadians plan on staggering the eating time at holiday celebrations, allowing some people to eat, while some mingle;
  • 18% plan on setting up a heated outdoor space where people can gather;
  • 9% opted to complete minor renovations on their home — such as removing a load-bearing wall) to create a larger gathering space.

Remember: CDC guidelines recommend staying at least six feet apart from other people.

To achieve this, holiday hosts can set up their in-home celebrations using the following options:

Gather in large spaces

Don’t cram everyone into a small room where social distancing is impossible. Choose the largest room, and open some windows to increase ventilation. If you can, celebrate the holidays outside — a gazebo in your yard is perfect. 

Complete minor renovations on your home

The most effective way to stay safe while celebrating the holidays during the COVID-19 epidemic is to socially distance at all times. Now is the time to assess your home to ensure social distancing is possible. How many people are you expecting? Do you have a room in your home that’s large enough to safely accommodate everyone?

Can you knock out a wall to combine two rooms into one spacious entertaining area? This might only cost a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, but it could help increase the value of your home in the long-run, and keep your loved ones safe in the short-term. 

Set up screening protocols

Screening for COVID-19 before beginning your holiday celebration may be an uncomfortable but critical conversation to have this year — and many Canadians realize this fact.

According to the survey, 57% of Canadians said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to “pre-screen attendees” prior to their holiday celebration; 60% reported they would ask guests to limit their own activities and outings up to two weeks before the planned holiday gathering.

To help minimize potential spread, some parents are choosing to pull their children from school early.

Theoretically, COVID-19 can spread quickly in schools, as children tend to forget about the risks of close contact when they’re learning, playing, and socializing. While kids aren’t a high-risk group, they can bring the virus home with them and pass it on to relatives.

By taking your children out of school early and stopping extracurricular activities two weeks before any in-person holiday celebrations begin, you eliminate one potential source of spread. Just be sure that during this self-isolation period, your children stay home and don’t interact with anyone outside the home.

Embrace technology

Video calling software has never been more popular as many of us began to rely on technology to stay in touch with work colleagues, friends and family during the pandemic. As we approach the holiday season, video calling and other communication technology will continue to be invaluable. 

While there are several precautions you can take in your home, the safest way to celebrate the holidays this year is remotely. Schedule regular video chats with absent relatives and friends.

Make the most of your video calls by utilizing the following tips:

Choose a user-friendly video calling platform

Video calling during the holidays should be fun. If people are struggling to set up video calls, the process can become stressful and irritating. Speak to everyone in advance. Ask them what their preferred device is and whether or not they already use video calling software they’re comfortable with. If everyone uses an iPad, for example, FaceTime might be the best option. If most are Android users, then using Google Nest, Alexa Echo or the Duo app may be best. Other, multi-platform software solutions, such as Zoom, are also good options — and very easy to use. 

Make practice calls 

Don’t wait until the celebrations begin before making video calls. Experiment with different locations, lighting levels, and camera angles. Ask for feedback from your friends and relatives. And help others to set up their video calling software. By the time the holidays are in full swing, you’ll all be ready to celebrate and enjoy, rather than fussing around with frustrating tech issues.

Plan ahead

Send gifts in advance and arrange to open them live on camera. Or buy matching sweaters and socks for everyone to wear. Do whatever you can to make everyone on the video call feel included and part of the same joyous occasion. 

Have fun

The whole point of video calling during the holidays is to generate the same fun and excitement you’re used to sharing with family in person. If you play Monopoly or charades during the holidays, play it via video. Get everyone involved, and you’ll soon forget that you’re all miles apart.

Final thoughts

Ideally, everyone should get tested before and after any gathering of any size, and plan to self-isolate if you do celebrate with people outside your immediate household.

Self-monitoring also goes a long way, this holiday season. Everyone should get into the habit of taking their own temperature once a day and monitoring themselves for common pandemic symptoms (a new, persistent cough, a high temperature, and/or a loss of smell).

The safety of the people we love is, of course, everyone’s priority this holiday season. But with a few sensible COVID-19 precautions, you and your family can say goodbye to 2020 in style.  

Survey methodology

The survey data was collected through an online SurveyMonkey survey between December 2 and December 3, 2020. 

The online survey asked 1,021 Canadians a total of seven self-report questions regarding their plans for the 2020 holiday season (including New Year celebrations).  

The estimated margin of error is +/- 3.00 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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Romana King

Romana King is an award-winning personal finance writer, real estate expert and the current Director of Content at Zolo Homebase. Romana has contributed to business and lifestyle publications including, Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, MoneySense, Globe & Mail Custom Content Team, and The Toronto Star. Among her achievements, Romana won silver for her annual Where to Buy Now real estate package in the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. In 2015, she won a SABEW Business Journalism award. When she was editor of CI Top Broker, Romana helped guide her team to obtain its first KRW Business Journalism nomination, and in 2011, she was part of a small team that helped MoneySense win Magazine of the Year at the 34th annual National Magazine Awards. Her north star is to consistently provide actionable, valuable and accurate information that helps elevate the financial literacy of everyone.