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Celebrating the Holidays During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Originally published November 16, 2020

Last reviewed December 6, 2022

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Wondering whether you should travel to Grandma’s house this year? Here’s what to consider.

This year has been rough, and there’s nothing most of us want more than to be able to gather with our loved ones this holiday season. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and daily coronavirus cases in the United States are on the rise again.

“The truth is that your safest bet this year is to celebrate with members of your own household or to celebrate with others virtually,” says Sharon Orrange, MD, an internal medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical associate professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

If you do decide to host or attend a holiday get-together this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided some important measures you can take to help reduce your risk. Read on to learn more.

Attending a holiday gathering

Should you visit family and friends during the holidays? There’s no one answer to this question, but there are some things to consider:

  • Skip it if any of these things apply. If you’re sick or you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, now is definitely not the time to see others. Also, if you or someone in your household are at risk of becoming seriously ill, you shouldn’t take the chance of going to a holiday gathering.
  • Check the level of community transmission in your area. Has there been a spike in cases? If so, it’s best not to travel to other places and risk spreading the disease. You should also be aware if there are rising cases or a coronavirus travel advisory in the place you’re planning on traveling to.
  • Think about who else is attending. How many other people will be attending the gathering and where are they traveling from? Find out if they’ve been sticking to COVID-19 best practices like mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing.
  • Check local and state travel regulations. Make sure you’re following local and state travel regulations, including whether you will need to quarantine before or after traveling.

Hosting a holiday gathering

If guests are coming to you, take the following precautions to make your gatherings as safe as possible:

  • Determine COVID-19 status beforehand and keep the guest list small. “If you decide to host a holiday gathering, the safest approach would be pre-testing your guests, limiting the number of people, wearing masks indoors and ensuring good ventilation,” Orrange says. “Indoor holiday gatherings that are crowded with poor ventilation and extended exposure of 4 hours or more are a recipe for disaster.”
  • Keep an eye on ventilation and temperature. If you can, open windows to get better air circulation. “In addition to opening windows to increase ventilation, you can add a HEPA portable air cleaner and run it continuously when guests are in your home,” Orrange says. And before you adjust your thermostat to keep things warm, she warns that “turning up the heat can lead to dry nasal passages and airways, which is one of the reasons why we catch more colds and flu in the winter.”
  • Consider celebrating outside. In warmer areas like Los Angeles, holiday dinners may be comfortably held outside. However, even this isn’t risk-free: “The problem with holiday gatherings isn’t just that events and dinners are inside, but also that cold, dry air facilitates the spread of COVID-19,” Orrange says. Masks should be worn even if your celebration is outdoors.
  • Have some of these extras on hand. If you decide to host, there are some other measures you can take to help reduce risk. In addition to requiring guests to wear masks, have extra masks and hand sanitizer at the ready. Keep your bathroom stocked with single-use towels and plenty of soap.
  • Encourage handwashing and don’t share utensils. Ask guests to wash their hands before eating, and have 1 person serve so multiple people aren’t touching the same serving spoons.

Deciding how and if to travel

In general, the closer you stay to home the less risky, both for you and for others. Consider only getting together with family or friends who are local. If you decide to travel, however, keep the following in mind:

  • Driving somewhere? Try avoiding stops along the way. Traveling within driving distance without stopping is best; multiple pit stops are riskier.
  • Know your risks if you plan on flying. Airports are places where you can be exposed to COVID-19, whether it’s spending time in the airport terminal or standing in security lines. But there is some good news when it comes to air travel: “My patients are happy to hear that it appears the risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket or train,” Orrange says. Although people travel in close quarters on airplanes, the CDC notes that most viruses do not spread easily because of the way air is filtered on planes.
  • Stick to these golden rules if you fly. Be sure to wear a mask, wash or sanitize your hands frequently and don’t touch your face. “In addition, stay seated during the flight if you can, limit carry-on baggage and find an airline that is still not booking middle seats,” Orrange says. “Another suggestion from a recent JAMA article is to adjust and point your overhead air nozzle straight at your head, and keep it on full.”
  • Consider a vacation rental. If you’re staying overnight, the CDC suggests staying in a vacation rental with people from your household only; hotels or staying with friends or family are considered riskier.

Editor’s note: The coronavirus pandemic is an evolving situation. This article highlights CDC guidance as of 11/16/2020. For the latest and most comprehensive CDC guidance on celebrating the holidays and small gatherings during the pandemic, visit


Dr. Sharon Orrange
Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.