Halloween was, truly, great. Kids were wandering the neighborhood in terrifying costumes demanding candy, like in the old days. Parents were catching up with neighbors who dispensed that candy. Or in the case of my dad, root vegetables.
There was an especial salience to the lively scene because last year people were rolling candy through socially distant chutes down upon masked children. You couldn't even see if they smiled. All you could see was the visceral sadness in the eyes of those who received an unanticipated beet.
Life is "back to normal" in a lot of ways, for a lot of people. The pandemic feels over because it's relatively better—even as more than a thousand Americans die of COVID-19 each day, per CDC. We are a people who define ourselves by where we assume we're headed, not where we are.
And, to be pragmatic, most people seem to have little to zero energy for continued conscientiousness. So I've tried to come up with a simple way to make gathering for winter holidays as "normal" and comfortable and minimal-risk as possible. Which they truly could be. But it won't happen by just wanting it to be so and pretending the virus has disappeared.
Over the holidays, many of us also plan to gather in multigenerational settings where at least one or a few people are elderly or otherwise high risk. And we're expected to carry on boisterously, endearingly, at length, indoors. And so, unlike "normal" years, one person who's occasionally sneezing or coughing at the table could put people on edge. Others will think that person ridiculous or too sensitive, and the fights could start sooner than usual and reach new heights before the turkey even explodes. Plus there's a solid statistical likelihood of having at least one friend or family member who usually attends but isn't vaccinated. (Or, probably isn't? You're not sure, and it's uncomfortable to even broach the subject. They already think you're part of the Illuminati. Which you are, but you can't tell them.)
So of course every situation is different, but I hope this is a broadly straightforward set of suggestions for a family/friend group. I'm not addressing bigger gatherings like banquet halls or stadiums; only the gatherings where you know people well, possibly even love them, and so find it very hard to talk about things on which you disagree.
To avoid awkwardness and minimize death, in advance of any gathering, I suggest frankly laying down what to expect in your group correspondence:
Everyone is vaccinated.
No one has cold symptoms.
No one had a recent known exposure to SARS-CoV-2. If they did, they'll get tested at least once. (More on testing below)
But say it in a more normal, human way than I'm able. Have fun with it. Maybe sandwich the authoritarianism between descriptions of how delicious the beets will be. This isn't an attempt to kill anyone's joy. Just the opposite; it's reassurance, a sign you care.
Of course, some may not take it that way. So, ideally, if possible, don't put it on one person to be the enforcer. Especially if that person is already hosting the gathering. Make clear somehow that this is coming from several people, and it's not a demand but a request. If anyone doesn't care to abide, it won't be taken personally if they'd prefer to skip this year. You're not making demands; you're offering options from which people can freely choose. They won't be excommunicated from the family.
Then the only way to create an issue is if someone disregards all options and insists on coming regardless. That's on them.
If you have family who think this is all unnecessary or weird, but who genuinely want to engage and discuss—as opposed to spouting things about 5G and continually mentioning your (undisclosed) Illuminati status—this is a great opportunity to have a substantive chat. Vaccination has become a brutally charged topic precisely because friends and loved ones can't or don't talk about it openly, and choose instead to get their information from anonymous commenters on forums.
At this point, if an unvaccinated person isn't willing to engage earnestly, discussion can't be forced. It will be received similarly to knocking on their door and telling them why their religion is wrong.
For those who do want to engage, but think your "rules" are simply too authoritarian, maybe remind them that you don't like this either, and you're just trying to do your part, and to set a good example for the pediatric family members in the process. While vaccines are working extremely well for most people, many with chronic diseases that compromise the immune system, and/or old age, simply can't mount the protective response that most people do. As I wrote in the wake of Colin Powell's death from COVID-19, despite being vaccinated, the shots don't give anyone impenetrable armor. They're life jackets, and despite wearing one, people who are toward the frail end of the health spectrum still stand to fare worse than others when a ship capsizes. Powell's was an unsurprising case. A study of people with multiple myeloma (which he had) found that vaccines could stimulate roughly half the protective response that they do in others. And even if no one in your family is an 84-year-old, four-star general with blood cancer, someone similarly dependent on our collective thoughtfulness is.
Actually, millions of people are, all over the world. Every act of transmission—anywhere, by anyone—keeps the virus circulating and, so, keeps that person at risk. And no one is suggesting that this means we should all shelter in place or cancel Christmas. But small, simple acts remain meaningful. Even though you'll never see their impact. Ideally, in retrospect, they'll have seemed unnecessary.
Finally, I'll briefly mention a few additional ideas to consider, which seem reasonable, but also should be of marginal value if all the above are in place. Depending on the comfort levels of the most anxious person in the family/group as well as the highest-risk person in the group, it's worth also considering:
Asking people to rapid-test themselves at the door, and/or ask everyone to get tested right before.
Do things outside whenever convenient. That doesn't mean having Thanksgiving in a parking lot, but could you hang out on the patio in the afternoon? Campfire after dinner? Campfire in mid afternoon because it's already dark? Just because you may be planning to eat dinner indoors doesn't mean the whole event may as well be inside. And it's also still worth opening as many windows as you comfortably can. If your neighbors complain about the noise, send them an apology beet through the chute.
Air purifiers. If you haven't already got one or four, they're truly a worthwhile investment for everyone's health, sucking up viruses of all sorts, as well as air pollution which contributes to millions of deaths every year. Air purifiers should really be party standards, even if COVID were to magically disappear. If the host doesn't have one or more, bring yours. They also make a great gift. This Christmas, give the gift of air purifiers.
I'm not being paid by air purifiers, I promise. Our brands don't align.
The issue of vaccinating children is somewhat less straightforward than vaccinating adults, and while I recommend it—especially if there are high-risk people in your family—the urgency isn't so great that a family should necessarily go to war over the presence of one unvaccinated kid in an otherwise vaccinated, generally healthy small group. I'll write more on this next week. Sorry if that was your main question. Stay tuned.
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