As colder weather approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it’s led many to question what fall and winter will look like this year. Many are still struggling to imagine what a fall—and holiday season—will be like with masks and social distancing. Couple that with the fact that colder and inclement weather can make it harder to see people outdoors, and it’s no surprise people are looking for guidance to help keep themselves and their loved ones as safe as possible.
We spoke with Dr. Stephen Hawes, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, at the University of Washington, about some common activities during the fall and winter and their general risk factor for COVID-19 transmission.
Just a note before we begin that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all guidance. Though these are good general guidelines, you should also take into account your health, the health of others in your household and those you’ll be coming into contact with, the rate of infection in your area, and other factors.
“Utilize the things that we know are effective in terms of prevention,” Dr. Hawes said. “It’s certainly tempting as the pandemic increases in time to start losing our diligence around prevention, but this is not the time to do that. The data suggests that we’re still in the midst of this pandemic. So please remain vigilant in your prevention.”
Going to a pumpkin patch.
As long as you’re keeping a distance, wearing your mask, and going where it’s not super crowded, Dr. Hawes says this is fairly low risk.
Having a bonfire.
This is another fairly low-risk activity, Dr. Hawes says—as long as you keep your circle small and wear a mask.
Yet another fairly low-risk activity when precautions are taken and when done outside. If inside, keep it to only members of your own household.
Going ice skating.
You guessed it: Wear a mask and keep your distance and this activity will remain generally safe when done outdoors.
Another fairly safe option, but try to go on days and times where it may not be as crowded.
“You certainly need to consider social distancing in all of these activities,” Dr. Hawes says of the activities mentioned so far. “So that remains critical, but certainly the evidence and the recommendations around outdoor activities need to be important. And I agree that circulating air and outdoor activities are low-risk, so I think those are great things that one can do.”
As you naturally keep your distance with activities like these, they’re generally pretty safe. But if you’re getting close to others while riding ski lifts or getting ready to go down a hill, wear a mask and keep your distance.
“The biggest risk will be waiting in line with other people or the activity post-game, where I think that would be similar to the restaurant situation where you want to avoid crowded areas,” Dr. Hawes said.
Eating outside at a restaurant in the cold.
Going out to eat will never be 100 percent risk-free, but outdoor dining is generally a safer idea than indoor dining. This will likely become a little trickier as the weather gets colder, but Dr. Hawes said that he’s not concerned about people bundling up to sit outside in the cold.
“If anything, if people are wearing gloves, there would be less risk,” he said.
However, as we get into cold and flu season, he noted that people coughing and sneezing will likely become more frequent, so this is a good reminder that if you’re feeling under the weather, you should stay home.
Experts have suggested that trick-or-treating will probably have to look different this year. Dr. Hawes acknowledged it will be associated with an increased risk, and he suggested that if people want to participate, they treat it similarly to going out to eat (i.e. wearing a real mask, not just a costume mask, carrying hand sanitizer, and limiting who you come in contact with).
“Certainly keeping it to a small circle of individuals is important, so this is not the year to have a party, inviting the neighborhood and the little ones to a costume party,” he said, suggesting instead a virtual costume party, something the CDC also suggests.
“You don’t want to be in a crowded situation either. So keeping distance from other groups, keeping your own group within family only, those all really makes sense,” he continued.
Some other helpful tips he suggested include incorporating gloves, not only so you stay warm, but so that you limit surface contact. You can also get creative and do things like leaving candy out in bowls in your drive-way rather than hand candy out the traditional way, and maybe even waiting a day to dive into the candy you collect.
Having a meal inside your friend’s home.
Indoor dining is generally tricky. You run a risk whenever you come into contact with anyone outside of your household, especially when you take off your mask to eat and though there are perks to dining in your own home or that of a friend, there are drawbacks as well.
“Certainly in your own household, you know who’s been there and so you can reduce that risk…and there is more uncertainty when you go out into any public place within a restaurant,” Dr. Hawes said. But he added that restaurants might be a little more careful with cleaning, something that you may not always do in your own home. “I think many restaurants have implemented practices and increased vigilance around testing their own staff regularly that would help.”
Having Thanksgiving dinner indoors.
Dr. Hawes agrees with the advice that Dr. Sharon Nachman, division chief for Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, gave us in a previous article: Keep your Thanksgiving celebrations pared down and as distanced as possible.
“Often these meals would include grandma and grandpa and extended family, and people with known and unknown risk factors,” he said. “…You need to carefully think about the risk that you will have but just as importantly, is the risk that you are putting others at by getting together.”
“Certainly within these gatherings, you can reduce your risk by having distance, by keeping them shorter in duration, and by being outdoors as much as possible.”
He also offered up an interesting suggestion: If you have the option to do so, try having your Thanksgiving dinner in your garage for some extra ventilation. But again, take the risk factors for you and for others into account here.
Staying with out-of-town family for the holidays.
Traveling out of your own community presents a higher-risk of COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC. Before you do so, Dr. Hawes suggests taking many different factors into play, such as how you’ll be traveling (more on that in a minute), the risk factors of yourself and those you’ll be staying with, as well as who they come in contact with. Dr. Nachman previously suggested that if you are traveling, you should be particularly careful in the weeks leading up to doing so.
Dr. Hawes also suggests utilizing testing if it’s widely available in your area, though you must also acknowledge this is not fool-proof.
Dropping off a Thanksgiving meal at someone’s home.
Experts do not believe that COVID-19 is transmitted through food and food packaging, so especially if this is contact-free delivery, it’s very safe. Just be sure to wash your hands often and wear a mask when dropping it off at their doorstep.
This holiday tradition will likely have to be put on hold this year. Dr. Hawes cited some cases where people are believed to have transmitted coronavirus while singing. Though these cases were inside, it’s still not advisable to go caroling door-to-door this year.
“I don’t see this as an activity that would be recommended either for the carolers themselves and it certainly could also be associated with increased risk of transmission to the people that you’re visiting,” he said.
Traveling by plane.
It’s a general rule that length of exposure increases your risk of contracting COVID-19, so shorter flights, while still being a risk, are a better option than multi-hour flights, which typically also involve drinks and meals when people remove their masks. You should also be careful about things like the TSA line and in-airport restaurants.
If you’re considering air travel, do your research beforehand and see what precautions they’re taking, such as keeping people out of the middle seats and how often they’re cleaning planes.
Staying in a hotel.
If you’re keeping a distance from other guests, wearing your masks in the lobby and elevators and washing your hands often, this is generally not a high risk. However, the Mayo Clinic has suggested some precautions like disinfecting high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, countertops, tables, desks, phones, remote controls, and faucets.
Stopping at a rest stop.
Wear your mask, wash your hands before and after, and keep your trip inside short and this isn’t a huge risk.
Eating inside a restaurant.
Generally, eating outdoors is a better and safer option. There are certainly some precautions you can take, such as wearing your mask when not actively eating or drinking, limiting your party to those within your household, and making sure you’re going somewhere that seems to be following precautions, but the CDC ranks indoor dining as one of the highest risk options for going out to eat.
Dr. Hawes says to also listen to the recommendations of state and local public health leaders in your area and take advantage of things like takeout and food trucks as ways to support local restaurants more safely.
Going Black Friday shopping.
Many stores are choosing to close on Thanksgiving this year and are already encouraging virtual shopping methods like typical online shopping or ordering for curbside pick-up on Black Friday. Crowded places like malls are generally risky and the CDC ranks this as a “higher risk” activity, its highest-risk category.
Traveling by car.
If you’re traveling with someone by car, as Dr. Hawes pointed out, it’s typically with people within your own household or circle, so that can be fairly low risk. Ride share services like Uber and Lyft have pivoted to everyone wearing masks, so if you’re traveling via rideshare or with members outside your household, this can be a good precaution to take.
Going to a wedding.
Many couples have chosen to put their weddings on hold over fears guests or staff will contract COVID-19, and in many places, large gatherings are still not allowed. This is among the higher-risk things you can participate in.
“Weddings are similar to family gatherings,” Dr. Hawes said. “There is a risk of transmission there, especially when people are traveling to different places.”
“I have heard of instances of reducing the size of the wedding and saving the reception for a time post-vaccination…and requiring that individuals that are part of a very small gathering be tested ahead of time.”
Having Christmas meals indoors.
Similarly with Thanksgiving, this will be a matter of keeping celebrations small and taking precautions, possibly getting a COVID-19 test beforehand, and thinking hard about who you will be putting at risk. This isn’t to say it will be easy to have the holidays look different this year, but it is important to keep everyone as healthy and safe as possible.
“The holidays are traditionally a time of warm family gatherings, it is so tempting to try and include bigger gatherings,” Dr. Hawes said. “But I think we need to do this with caution and consider the risk of those individuals and the risk that you will potentially bring to them by potentially infecting them.”
“So I would use extreme caution in figuring out and reducing and eliminating that risk. It’s not a time to visit with grandma for the first time and travel across the country to be with your grandparents, or your parents, if that hasn’t happened.”
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