Newswise — Winter is coming, but the pandemic is lingering. That means the 2020 holiday season will be like no other. With some thoughtful and creative planning, you can maximize the joy while minimizing the spread of COVID-19.

Our many, diverse holidays often share the same centerpiece: Families gathered around the table for hours to share food, conversation and laughter — all the ingredients for a joyous holiday. But also a recipe for exposing ourselves and others to COVID-19, says Colleen Nash, MD, MPH, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Rush University Medical Center.

Planning for Halloween

The traditions that fill our calendars from Halloween through New Year’s carry varying degrees of risk and different options to play it safe.

Trick-or-treating was canceled in some communities, but in others, neighbors will be handing out candy.

“Trick-or-treating is a cherished tradition, but it is the opposite of social distancing,” Nash says.

Instead of taking her young children trick-or-treating, Nash says she’s planned a backyard scavenger hunt for them.

If you do trick-or-treat, do not stand together in groups.

“You need to keep moving, and you need to wear a mask — not just a costume mask, but a cloth mask that covers your nose, mouth and chin,” she says.

If you hand out candy, wash your hands and keep your distance. Some families are setting up candy chutes and ziplines to give children treats from more than six feet away. If you put out candy, set out individual bags on a table.

“You don’t want hundreds of hands reaching into one candy bowl,” Nash adds.

Family gatherings

What’s scarier than trick-or-treating? Having a party indoors. That’s true for whatever holiday you’re celebrating. Even getting together with family for holiday dinners carries significant risk.

“It’s family and friends eating together, talking and laughing for long periods of time, often very close together,” says Nash. “What worries me is people letting down their guard because they feel safe around their loved ones, and they are tired of wearing masks.”

But loved ones and trusted friends who come from different households — and maybe different parts of the state or the country — have not been part of your “bubble.”

Even being tested for COVID before getting together doesn’t mean you can mingle safely without masks and social distancing.

“A test on any given day only shows whether you were negative at the time of the test,” says epidemiologist Michael Lin, MD, MPH, an infectious diseases specialist at Rush University Medical Center.

So start by asking yourself some important questions:

  • Would your guests be willing to wear a mask and social distance?
  • Do you have room for people to stay six feet apart?
  • Are any of your guests or anyone in your household at high risk of severe complications from COVID-19?
  • Are you or your guests likely to come into contact with people who have COVID-19?
  • Are you prepared to cancel the event if you are exposed to the virus?
  • Can you count on your guests not to come if they have been exposed or are experiencing COVID-like symptoms?

In many cases, you may want to establish some new traditions and virtual family gatherings.

“You can find ways to adapt holiday traditions or adopt new ones,” says Janet Yarboi, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at Rush. “This time of year, traditions give us a feeling of being connected. But you can feel that sense of belonging by honoring a tradition you’ve done in the past or by trying something new.”

Helping your family cope

Children are often the ones who look the most forward to the holidays. So it’s a good idea to prepare them for changes this year.

“Let them know what to expect, what things will be different,” says Yarboi. “Tell them if they won’t be going to Grandma’s house. Allow them to help come up with something fun to do instead. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.”

While you may be feeling upset about these changes too, remember your reactions often set the tone for how your family reacts.

“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,” Yarboi says. “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.”

For teens, the pandemic may be causing a sense of isolation at a time in their lives when they most want interaction with their peers and to find their identity. Changed holiday plans could add to those feelings.

“Teens need the opportunity to build new relationships, try new experiences,” says Yarboi.  “Parents can help them find ways to explore new activities and to look forward to milestones ahead.” 

As kids deal with the pandemic along with everyday challenges, parents should watch for changes in their child’s behavior but also ask them how they are feeling. “Check in with them at a time when you can really listen and respond,” Yarboi says. “On the bright side, they’ve had many months getting used to restrictions and changes and most likely feel better able to handle the changes ahead.”

Tips for safely enjoying the holidays this year

  • Wear a mask (even around visiting family) — and make sure to wear it properly; it must cover your nose, mouth and chin to be effective.
  • Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing and before you eat.
  • Get tested if you have symptoms and/or have had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 and quarantine as needed; close contact is defined as being within six feet for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.
  • Travel only if necessary. If you do travel, take precautions to protect yourself and others. If you need to travel by air, it can be done safely, Lin says. “When everyone is following masking rules and distancing, the risk is low. Airplanes use filtered air and have air circulation patterns that reduce the risk of infection.” But watch for risk if you can’t social distance on or off the plane. He recommends checking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for what to consider before traveling.
  • Thinking of taking the kids to see Santa? You can avoid the crowds and the lines by arranging a personal phone call instead and/or mailing a letter to Santa.
  • Try a new volunteer effort you can do from home, such as making comfort blankets. Involve your children, parents, siblings or neighbors to create a sense of togetherness while also making a greater impact.
  • Love watching football with your family or friends? Host a virtual watch party. It’s as simple as putting the phone on speaker while you and a friend or two watch in your own homes or you connect with a few others via a video call.
  • Order a make-at-home meal from your favorite restaurant.
  • Find a holiday tradition you still can do this year, even if it’s as simple as watching a holiday movie or making a gingerbread house.
  • Learn to prepare a new recipe or watch and discuss a film or book via a webinar — on your own or with relatives or friends joining in at the same time. From museums and community organizations to restaurants and gourmet shops, non-profits and businesses are organizing any number of virtual tours, events, discussion groups and tasting parties.

And anytime you feel you are missing out on the holiday spirit, pick up the phone and call anyone you miss: Zoom, FaceTime, Skype or just talk.