How to Establish COVID-Safe Ground Rules for Holiday Gatherings With Family

Love ‘em and sometimes hate ‘em, but mostly love ‘em; family can be complicated. With multiple generations whose values may vary, 2020 has proven to be a year that opened up new conversations and revealed sometimes surprising beliefs. As you prepare to gather together for the season, you may not agree on all of the safety precautions and health measures related to COVID-19. Uncle Joe may think the pandemic is a hoax, your brother could have voted for a candidate you didn’t support, and your grandmother may refuse to wear a mask. When holidays are already stressful, these added nuances can make it even more frustrating and exhausting. Of course, the goal is to avoid the mess altogether and come up with strategies that benefit everyone. Here, we spoke with mental health experts on how to develop ground rules diplomatically and thoughtfully.

Gather and share the facts. 

If we’ve learned anything in the past four years—and particularly, in the last nine months—it’s that fact-checking matters. And as you begin to decide the appropriate guidelines for your holiday events, clinical psychologist Kristine Berrett, Ph.D., recommends digging into the stats in your area. How many cases are currently active? How many people are hospitalized? Are the numbers trending up or going down? Then, double-check the restrictions from your government concerning groups. You should abide by this limit since it’s meant to help keep communities safe. 

Then, you can start to create a plan for your family based on this information and, frankly, a bit of common sense. “If someone isn’t feeling well or has had contact with someone with COVID-19, obviously they should not attend,” Dr. Berrett uses as an example. 

Identify your own boundaries.

Once you understand the lay of the land around you, so to speak, it’s time to turn inwards and be honest about how you feel. We all have various risk tolerance levels, and while your cousins may be comfortable being around anyone and everyone, you may be stricter. Licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder and co-CEO of Slumberkins Kelly Oriard, LSC, MS, suggests asking yourself these questions:What risk factors do you need to consider? This could include pre-existing conditions you or those in your immediate household have, your ability to go into work, and other considerations.

– What risk factors are you comfortable with exposing others to? 

– What feels right to you?

– Are there any factors you aren’t clear on?

Ask attendees to share their comfort levels anonymously. 

Once you understand your own stance, you should seek the opinions of anyone who is planning on attending your holiday celebrations. Berrett says everyone should answer the same questions, which might include mask-wearing, COVID-19 testing and antibodies, pre-existing conditions, or other necessary information to make informed decisions. And as much as you can, try to remain Switzerland—aka, unbiased—when you’re receiving responses. “Be sensitive to the comfort level and risk level of those who are invited to gather. Not everyone would feel comfortable gathering for a meal even if it is just family,” she continues. “Get input from guests and make a plan to reduce risk and increase the comfort level of your guests.”

Communicate the game plan clearly and early. 

Now that the legwork is completed, it’s time to analyze the information you have and create a game plan. This includes setting some rules that everyone will be expected to follow to ensure everyone is at ease for the holidays. Berrett says some basics could be:

– Handwashing upon arrival or anytime someone comes back into your house.

– Frequent hand-sanitizing stations throughout your home. 

– Masks remain on, except when eating dinner. 

– Social distancing practices within your home, based on households. (Whoever is quarantining together can stay together, but away from others, for example.)

And, if you want the extra layer of precaution, provide recommendations on where all family members can receive a COVID-19 test in the week leading up to Thanksgiving dinner.

“The last thing anyone wants is increased family or friend tension to develop over differences in comfort level with a gathering during COVID-19. Be sure all guests’ concerns are heard and respected,” she continues. “Be sure everyone understands the ground rules and is willing to comply with them for the Thanksgiving gathering.”

Suppose someone is having a hard time getting on-board with the rules. In that case, Oriard suggests reminding them that this situation will not last forever, and future holidays will offer new opportunities for reuniting. “Respecting one another’s boundaries is vital for family functioning in the short term and the long-term,” she adds. 

Get creative—and roll with it. 

Sure, you never considered buying heat lamps before, but there are plenty of ‘firsts’ coming out of 2020 already. To make your home a safe place for everyone, Berrett says you may need to exercise a little creativity. This may mean keeping the doors and windows open, even if it’s cold out. It could mean splitting your family between two homes and eating together via Zoom. Or, it could be a completely virtual dinner instead. “The point is, think outside the box and go with it,” she continues. “Thanksgiving this year does not need to look like it did in the past. And that’s okay.”

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