Celebrating the holidays with friends and family? Here are some tips for gathering safely

November 18, 2021 Providence Health Team

Key takeaways:

  • Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress vaccination is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

  • An infection prevention expert offers tips to help you protect your physical health this holiday season.

  • Use these strategies to assess the safety of an event and whether it falls within your comfort zone for attendance.


There’s broad agreement among healthcare experts that vaccinations are the key to safe holiday celebrations. In guidance released last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered ways to enjoy your family’s traditions safely during our second holiday season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what if our gathering includes family and friends who aren’t vaccinated? According to the CDC, the best way to protect yourself and others who are not eligible for vaccination is to get vaccinated yourself. Other safeguards include:

  • Wear a well-fitting mask over your nose and mouth in public indoor settings or around others if you are not vaccinated.
  • Even if you’re vaccinated, wear a mask in public indoor settings at events and activities that present a higher risk of infection.
  • Outdoors is safer than indoors.
  • Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Don’t host or attend a gathering if you’re sick or have symptoms.
  • Get tested if you have COVID-19 symptoms or have close contact with someone who has COVID-19 and stay home!

COVID-19 guidance is constantly evolving as healthcare professionals continue to learn more about the disease and vaccinations. Check the CDC’s COVID-19 web pages for the most up-to-date information before you decide to attend holiday gatherings.

We understand that it can be confusing and stressful to wade through all the news and recommendations and guidelines for keeping yourself and others safe, particularly at holiday time when many are planning to gather with friends and loved ones. To help you make the best decisions you can, we are sharing strategies and insights to help you protect yourself this holiday season. Here Evan Sylvester, Regional Director of Infection Prevention at Swedish, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about remaining infection-free during another pandemic holiday season. 

Q+A with Evan Sylvester: Gathering safely during the holiday season

Q: How can I assess if an event or activity I want to attend is safe?

A: There is no way to ensure zero transmission or infection from COVID-19 during an event. Folks need to weigh the benefits (e.g. mental wellbeing) and risks of infection while trying to avoid the higher-risk activities when possible.

There are several things to consider during this pandemic to stay safer while still going about our lives, including:

  • The transmission level of COVID-19 in your community. If it is high, you may want to add extra safety measures or postpone your activities.
  • Whether you or any family members you live with or see regularly are immunocompromised with conditions such as diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which put them at higher risk.
  • If you or other people you plan to be around are vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • The number of participants. If the event is large, will you be outdoors? Will you be able to maintain six feet of distance from others or keep your mask on? The CDC defines a large gathering as one that brings together people from many households. They can be public or private events and are usually planned. Examples of large events include sporting events, festivals, large weddings, conferences and parties.
  • Are you sick? If so, stay home! Likewise, you shouldn’t be around other sick people that may have COVID-19.

Q: Are gatherings safe if everyone is vaccinated?

A: According to CDC guidelines, fully vaccinated people may visit other fully vaccinated people in small groups without wearing masks or physically distancing. Small groups are defined by the CDC as informal events that occur with friends and family you socialize with regularly. They don’t usually involve travel and are typically held at someone’s home. Examples of small events include family dinners, small holiday parties and special celebrations.

Vaccination greatly increases your safety, but there is still a small risk of virus breakthroughs leading to transmission and infection. However, if you’re vaccinated and get infected, you are less likely to become severely ill. You may still choose to wear a mask if you live with a high-risk individual or are in a public space where the vaccine status of others is unknown.

Q: Is it safe to be near unvaccinated friends and family?

A: Your risk increases if you are around unvaccinated individuals. If you are vaccinated and want to visit with unvaccinated individuals, you should wear a mask or meet outdoors to further lower your risk of infection.

Q: How can I keep my unvaccinated children safe?

A: Unvaccinated children or partially vaccinated children should still mask while in public areas and around others who are unvaccinated. Individuals are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after they have completed all vaccines in the series of a two-dose mRNA vaccine such as Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine.

Q: What other advice would you share for staying safe, sharing food and sharing space during the holidays?

A: Food that is served in the potluck or family-style is considered high risk and may lead to transmission of COVID-19.

Some strategies during the holidays should include:

  • Using pre-packaged boxes with disposable utensils to eliminate the need for shared items. This is great for work settings.
  • Have one person serve the food, to limit the number of other individuals touching utensils.
  • Opening a few windows and increasing the distance between chairs can help reduce potential transmission.
  •  As always, wash your hands before eating.


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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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