Plan now for safe gatherings over the holidays

Published 8:18 am Wednesday, October 28, 2020

By Bonnie Coblentz | MSU Extension Service


STARKVILLE — It should come as no surprise that 2020 holiday gatherings will have a new element of health safety that impacts every part of the festivities and requires planning.

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Dr. Emily Landrum, a family physician in Starkville, recently hosted a baby shower that successfully gathered friends to celebrate in an environment that protected health.

“You have to make a plan, reevaluate the plan and then adjust it as needed,” Landrum said of the process. “When assessing the type of gathering you want to have, it’s important to consider those who will be in attendance and just accept that things need to be different for a bit.”

Landrum suggested determining who may have high-risk conditions or work in a higher risk setting and asking them what they are comfortable with. Do not pressure anyone to participate in events they find troubling.

For the baby shower for her best friend Audrey, Landrum decided to host an outdoor, drive-by party. She used e-invitations, which allowed for easy communication and updates as plans were formed and changed.

“We created a sign-up so people could select their own individual time slot to sit down with Audrey at a distance, give their gift and hang out,” Landrum said. “All the hosts signed up for what items they would bring, just like at any other shower.”

When the big day turned out rainy, Landrum put in place her backup plan and set up a tent in the front yard. She kept the front door propped open for ventilation and provided restroom access with limited touch areas. Snacks were spaced out on the table under the tent with serving tools that prevented touch, and individual canned or bottled drinks were available.

“My take-aways are wear your mask, keep your distance and stay hygienic,” Landrum said. “Have your event outside. Stagger guests’ arrival time to limit exposure, and have a back-up plan for weather or if a guest or host has an exposure.”

David Buys, health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said this event perfectly demonstrated safe practices and can serve as a guide when planning holiday events.

“Casual, hasty plans of getting a turkey and a few friends together should now be replaced by thoughtful preparations that create safe environments for gatherings,” Buys said.

COVID-19 is not expected to disappear anytime soon, Buys said, so plans should be made now for the upcoming holidays.

“As cooler weather sets in, we anticipate folks spending even more time indoors, and COVID is more likely to be transmitted among people in those settings,” he said. “We continue to be concerned about the burden of COVID on the health care system. Additionally, we cannot let up our focus on preventing chronic disease or other infectious diseases like flu, as those also weigh on our health care infrastructure.”

Buys offered a few tips to help resolve the competing demands of holding holiday get-togethers while ensuring health safety. Remaining flexible is a key to success.

“Those who routinely live together are safe to move about their homes without a mask, but regardless of your kinship, if you are not living in the same home, it is essential that you take all precautions, such as using face covering when indoors and maintaining at least 6 feet outdoors,” Buys said.

Consider outdoor holiday gatherings this year. Outdoor events can use a tent for shelter, but it is easier to socially distance in an open area. Additionally, being outdoors means guests are breathing fresh air.

If guests cannot participate in an outdoor event, Landrum suggested delivering a holiday meal to family members who are part of an at-risk group and then setting up a video chat to let them participate during the meal.

Some people consider getting a COVID test and self-quarantining before gatherings. Buys said this approach would be effective only if everyone tests negative and then truly self-quarantines leading up to the event.

“As the holidays approach, we are going to want to try to find ways to rationalize holding our traditions and large family gatherings, but we need to stay the course with wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and engaging in other safety measures, as COVID is not going to take a break from infecting people,” he said.

Despite the party atmosphere of the holidays, Buys said masks are important. Wear face coverings if the gathering is indoors or if it is outdoors but people are not staying at least 6 feet apart. Consider limiting the size of gatherings to reduce the concentration of people in the same space.

Always make sure sanitizing equipment is readily available. Sanitize hands frequently, avoid touching the face, use single-serving foods and disposable utensils when possible, and sanitize high-touch areas often.