From 'pretty safe' to 'skip it!,' doctors rank popular holiday activities by level of COVID-19 risk

Korin Miller
·10 min read
Viewing Christmas lights at a drive-through display — such as this year's Glittering Lights at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is a generally safe holiday activity this year. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Viewing Christmas lights at a drive-through display — such as this year's Glittering Lights at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is a generally safe holiday activity this year. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The holiday season is here and, just like every year, there are plenty of ways to celebrate. But in 2020, of course, typically must-do events don’t look quite the same, as the global pandemic has turned even Santa visits and attending midnight Mass into high-risk, potentially deadly choices.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it clear that spending time with anyone outside your household carries some level of risk of your contracting COVID-19. And, unfortunately, that doesn’t go away just because it’s the holidays. But there are still plenty of celebratory options that carry low risks, and to find out what those activities are — and which should be avoided at all costs — Yahoo Life has consulted with experts about how to best plan your upcoming days and nights.

Overall, they agree on a few things: Outdoor gatherings are safer than being indoors, crowds are to be generally avoided, social distancing is preferred and masks are a must. “Any situations when people would be interacting without masks should be out,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. “That’s a no-no.”

These guidelines also apply when you meet with relatives who don’t live in your household, Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Although we know our relatives and close friends well, if they do not live with us, contact with them poses a similar risk,” he says.

Not sure whether your favorite holiday activities are safe, risky or fall somewhere in the middle this year? Here’s what the experts have to say.

You'll want to skip the holiday buffets this year, experts warn. (Photo: Getty Images)
You'll want to skip the holiday buffets this year, experts warn. (Photo: Getty Images)

Danger zone: Skip it!

Unfortunately, this list is pretty long, but experts say these activities are simply not worth the risk.

Holiday buffets

While many restaurants have found safer ways to do buffets, like having masked staffers serve the food and allowing only a limited number of people to get in line at once, Russo says it’s still not a safe activity. “It’s a lot of people eating indoors without masks on,” he says. “It should be out.”

Santa visits

While Russo says Santa is the one who is the most at risk of infection due to all of those interactions with children, the close contact that typically happens during Santa visits and having them indoors, such as at malls or department stores, doesn’t make this a safe activity. “Definitely pass,” he says.

Midnight Mass on Christmas

Henry F. Raymond, associate professor and epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health, calls this “problematic” for a few reasons. “Some people are still regularly going to church and, in a sense, that’s probably a quasi-bubble,” he says. “But midnight Mass is when you’re going to have people show up who don’t normally, including family members from out of town.”

Office parties

Russo calls this one “very high” risk, pointing out that people will be unmasked while they eat and drink. “Alcohol also lowers inhibitions,” he says, noting that could lead to more unsafe behavior. “It’s best to avoid.”

Outdoor cocktail crawls

An outdoor cocktail crawl — which is when you travel from place to place, sampling drinks at each stop — may seem as though it would just pose a moderate risk, similar to that of an outdoor dinner party. But doctors say the presence of alcohol and the potential for a large crowd is concerning. “Skip it,” Russo says.

Attending a midnight Mass for Christmas — such as the one seen here, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 2013 — should be off the list this year, say experts. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
Attending a midnight Mass for Christmas — such as the one seen here, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 2013 — should be off the list this year, say experts. (Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Thanksgiving Eve high school reunion parties

“No, absolutely not,” Russo says. Raymond agrees. “Where have all these people been? What have they been doing?” he asks, illustrating that the answers would be unknown. Raymond acknowledges that it can be tough to turn down an invite to one of these gatherings — especially if it’s the only time each year that you see old friends. But, he adds, “with the uptick in cases we’re seeing, we all need to be very careful.”

Turkey bowls and powderpuff football games

Powderpuff football games, for which people gather to play touch or flag football, really isn’t ideal, Russo says. “If you’re playing, there’s lots of heavy breathing going on,” he points out. “It’s also impossible to space out.”

White elephant or ‘Secret Santa’ gift swap

A gift swap done with friends or co-workers, regardless of the specific theme or rules, “is not necessarily about the transmission on the packages, but if it’s done indoors in a break room, it’s not a good idea,” Russo says. “People get excited and generate extra respiratory secretions — it could be really risky.” Instead, you and fellow white elephant participants could plan ahead by mailing gifts to each other, and then open them together over a Zoom call.

Carries some risk: Assess carefully

These events can be doable, but will need some modifications from the usual to make them safe, doctors say.

Holiday parades

While these of course take place outdoors, it can be tough to avoid the crowd and still witness the event, Raymond points out. Kulkarni agrees. “I would likely skip if it involves a large crowd,” he says. If there’s a way to watch from your car or stand at the edge of the crowd, Russo says it might be OK — if you wear a mask. An even better choice? To watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, remotely.

While this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will take place, it will look much different than in 2019, pictured here, with no crowds allowed to gather — a good rule of thumb for holiday parades anywhere, doctors say. (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
While this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will take place, it will look much different than in 2019, pictured here, with no crowds allowed to gather — a good rule of thumb for holiday parades anywhere, doctors say. (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Neighborhood caroling

“This can be safe, if you do it the right way,” says Russo. If you can carol with your immediate household or people within your bubble, you should be OK, he says. You’ll also need to stay spread out from the people you’re singing to. But it’s an entirely different story if you plan to carol in a group of people from outside your household or bubble. “It’s important to think about who is in this group of carolers,” Raymond says. While being outside is good, one study from the CDC released in May found that 87 percent of a choral group in Washington contracted COVID-19 from one infected member. “The risk is real,” Raymond says.

Outdoor dinner parties

The CDC says that having a small outdoor dinner with people who live in your community is considered a “moderate risk” activity. “It’s not perfect, but it could be done more safely if people separate and each social bubble has their own table, separated by at least 6 feet,” Russo says. “Make sure masks are up when you mingle.”

Public Christmas tree or Hanukkah menorah lightings

These events can be tricky, because they typically attract a lot of people, Russo says. If you do decide to take the risk, he recommends wearing a mask and sticking to the edge of the crowd.

Turkey trots

This falls squarely into the “it depends” category: If you plan to race as usual, “it’s a no-go,” Russo says. But if you take certain precautions, it may be a moderate-risk activity. “While it is possible to remain masked and distanced, given the wide range of individuals attending these races, it can be difficult to know the health status of everyone you come into contact with,” Dr. Mark Conroy, emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. If you can run on the periphery and steer clear of others, it may be doable, Raymond adds. Even better: a virtual turkey trot. “Running outside individually is a low-risk activity,” Kulkarni notes.

Volunteering at a soup kitchen this year can still happen, as long as certain safety protocol are being followed, say experts. (Photo: Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Volunteering at a soup kitchen this year can still happen, as long as certain safety protocol are being followed, say experts. (Photo: Susan Watts/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Volunteering at a soup kitchen

“It depends on the details,” Kulkarni says. “How is dining arranged in the facility? How is food being served? Does the facility have a universal masking and distancing policy?” He adds that it may be possible to do this in a way that minimizes your risk, but a lot of precautions would need to be followed, including social distancing behind the scenes and when food is served, spacing out tables, having one person doing the serving, allowing people to receive their food in small groups rather than creating a large line and, of course, making sure everyone wears masks unless they are eating.

Generally safe: Go for it, but proceed with caution

While doctors say these activities are largely safe, there are some caveats.

Cookie competition

Gather your roommates or household family and see who can who can bake the best traditional holiday cookies in under two hours. Will fan favorite gingerbread reign as champion? Or will peanut butter kisses take the cake? Do your best Paul Hollywood impression and find out.

A bake-off with those you live with  is a safe and celebratory  activity this year. (Photo: Getty Images)
A bake-off with those you live with is a safe and celebratory activity this year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Checking out Christmas light displays

Drive-through displays, where you stay in your car with members of your own household, are best, “as long as you limit people in your car to your immediate family,” Conroy says. A walk-through display can also be safe, but you’ll want to make sure you stay spread out from others and bring masks. “If anyone gets close to you, just pop your mask on,” Russo advises.

Christmas movie marathon

Grab the popcorn and some mulled wine and cozy up for a night of your favorite Christmas movies. Make it a group event by inviting friends to a Netflix party. And don’t forget the tissues. Love Actually gets us. Every. Single. Time.

Kissing under the mistletoe

Yes, this is safe, with one huge exception: as long as you’re kissing your established partner or someone who lives in your household, Conroy says. But if you want to smooch someone who doesn’t live in your household, it’s best to take a pass. “It is an unmasked activity with direct exchange of respiratory secretions,” Kulkarni points out.

Virtual tree decorating party

The first step to getting into the holiday spirit is turning your home into the cozy haven of your dreams. And what better way than doing so virtually with your friends and family? So grab the fairy lights, ornaments, tinsel and blast some Michael Bublé, then gather your friends and family on Zoom and see who can go the most all-out this year. Winner gets bragging rights all winter long.

Visiting a Christmas tree farm or stand

This can be a safe family activity, Raymond says, adding, “If you and your kids want to pick out a Christmas tree outdoors and socially distance from others, that’s fine.” Just wear a mask when you pay and have one family member interact with the seller while others hang back to minimize the risk of exposure. A Christmas tree stand can be a little riskier, depending on how crowded it is, Russo says, but adds that if everyone in your family wears a mask and stays spread out from others, it should be fine.

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