How to handle holiday gatherings as COVID cases tick upward: 'The host has the full authority'

·4-min read
Two masked women greet each other at the entrance of a house, with a Christmas-decorated dinner table.
Though it can feel awkward to ask questions about vaccination status around holiday gatherings, experts say it's important to have these conversations. (Getty Images)

We're now in the middle of our second holiday season during a pandemic. And while we've lived through this before, this year feels a little different from the last one.

COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available for everyone over the age of 5, and rapid tests are for sale at your local drugstore. Mask use is also still strongly encouraged in public indoor spaces. But that doesn't mean everyone has actually taken advantage of these safety tools.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60 percent of Americans over the age of 5 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and a little more than 70 percent of that group has had at least one dose of the vaccine. The CDC also now recommends that everyone over the age of 18 gets a COVID-19 booster dose after a certain period of time has passed since their primary vaccination series — but plenty of people haven't done that either. And there's also pandemic fatigue, which many people are experiencing, to consider.

Factor all of that in with the growing presence of the highly infectious Omicron variant, which has now been detected in 20 states, and things can get a little tricky when it comes to gathering with family and friends for the holidays.

Even though it can feel awkward to ask questions about vaccination status and around topics that you need to feel comfortable before gathering, experts say it's important to have these conversations. "The first thing everyone needs to do is assess the relative risks and benefits of a gathering, and the risks are largely going to be about the vulnerable people attending — those who are elderly and immunocompromised," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. If anyone who meets that criteria is attending, "you need to shift how conservative you are," he says.

Video: COVID vaccines, boosters key as holidays approach, doctor says

If you have family members who either choose not to be vaccinated or boosted or children under 5 who are ineligible to get the vaccine, that changes things too, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "Everybody who is eligible ought to be vaccinated and had their booster," he says. "If there is the proverbial Uncle Frank who is pretty casual out there — doesn't wear a mask and isn't vaccinated — you have to have a conversation with them and say, 'We'd love to have you here, but because this is another COVID holiday, we can't have you here."

Although you probably want to have a clean home before people come over, certain moves like bleaching all surfaces before people visit are overkill, Russo says. (The CDC says online that COVID-19 mainly spreads when people breathe in droplets from an infected person.)

Some people may feel more comfortable asking everyone to take COVID rapid tests before gathering or to limit their activities ahead of time, and infectious disease experts say that's not a bad idea either. The social aspect of this can be difficult to navigate, but Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol, tells Yahoo Life that it is "most certainly acceptable" for a host to ask people to follow certain protocols before gathering in their home.

"That can be from asking folks to quarantine, COVID test or making a statement to say that only individuals who are fully vaccinated are invited to the event," Swann says. "The host has the full authority in this instance to do that. This is our world right now."

Swann recommends being "brutally honest without being brutal" and telling people exactly what you expect of them before you gather. Swann also suggests being upfront about your requirements when you invite someone to the gathering, just to make sure everyone understands the rules in advance.

"Then, allow people to make their own decisions," she says. "They can accept or decline."

But while hosts can dictate the rules, Swann says that it's not socially acceptable to do that if you're an invited guest. "If you're the attendee, certainly ask questions and find out if the guidelines are suitable for you," she says. "If they're not, you have the right to decline the invitation."

If you're hosting, Swann says to expect that some people may not follow the guidelines you've set. "This is a moment when you will have to stand strong and be firm on what you requested," she says. "Even if you have to turn someone away, it is your right as the host to make the rules and ask that they be followed."

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