It's August, which means we're officially one month away from Walmarts and Costcos setting up their fake plastic tree displays in the great American tradition of Christmas creep. Hallmark's Keepsake Ornament Premiere, which happens annually in July for some reason, has already whizzed us by. Starbucks' red cups return in less than 100 days, according to this tracker that has no business existing.
But for once, it's hard to get annoyed about the obscenely premature airplay of "Jingle Bells" in CVS. This year, the holidays loom as the unspoken "but what about—" when epidemiologists discuss the likelihood of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic this fall. It's hard to imagine Thanksgiving and the winter holidays without family or travel, but in the midst of an unchecked pandemic, it's even scarier to think about carrying on as normal.
The United States is alone among peer nations in having endured record-high cases of coronavirus throughout the summer, despite this time of year typically being the low season for infectious disease transmission. That makes the coming winter look "Dickensianly bleak" indeed, according to a chilling new report this week in STAT; short of serious intervention, the peaks this winter could be even higher than those this spring. And that's on top of the regular cold and flu season, which can tax hospitals even when there isn't a pandemic. "I think November, December, January, February are going to be tough months in this country without a vaccine," Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told STAT.
Wishfully thinking the pandemic will be resolved by the holidays is also naïve; a vaccine likely won't be widely available until the middle of 2021 in a best-case scenario. In case you need further confirmation to check your jolly: the Radio City Rockettes, for the first time in their nearly 90-year history, have preemptively canceled their Christmas shows.
Without careful planning, you can see how the holidays have the potential to be a disaster. "We know that the biggest risk of spread for this virus is when meaningful numbers of people gather indoors for any extended period of time," Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic. Hmmm, does that sound like something people tend to do as part of the celebration of a particular food-centric November holiday? But an indoor gathering like a family dinner doesn't only endanger grandma and grandpa; epidemiologists say it has the makings of a superspreader event. From a health and safety standpoint, Jha added that even having "people over in my house for two hours on a Sunday morning in December" seems unwise — much less hosting Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
Factor in out-of-town travel, and the outlook gets even grimmer. We already know that the exodus of people from New York City in March helped fuel outbreaks in places as distant as Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and the West Coast. Consider the more than 100 million Americans who travel during a typical holiday season, and you'll start to get queasy. Admittedly, not everyone will feel like they're prepared to take such a big risk — one company found 58 percent of people are not planning to travel this year, up from 49 percent last year and "equivalent to 31 million fewer travelers," CNN reports — but tens of millions still will. It simply isn't realistic to expect people not to try to see their families over the holidays.
But if that's the case, the time to start planning is now. Most importantly, figuring out a way to travel with the least amount of risk to yourself and others; maybe that means taking a longer drive for a trip you'd normally have taken an airplane for, since cars are considered by scientists to be a "much safer" option when proper precautions are taken. Or maybe it involves seeking out an airline that's blocking out middle seats in order to minimize on-board crowding. Either way, it might be better to travel during off-times, like mornings or Tuesdays and Wednesdays, to avoid crowds of fellow holiday travelers.
Alternative accommodations and lengthier stays will probably be in the cards for many, particularly those visiting with older or vulnerable relatives. COVID-19 tests likely won't show a positive result until a few days after you are exposed to the disease, and the incubation period can be up to two weeks. As MIT Medical puts it, "Do you want to visit your grandparents after flying into Boston? Self quarantine for 14 days first." Hotels and resorts within a day's drive of New York and Boston are already seeing "unusually high demand for festive season stays for families," CNN notes. Having your own space in a nearby Airbnb or hotel — and taking serious measures, like mask wearing and social distancing, if seeing anyone during your incubation window — would minimize (although never fully eliminate) the risk of transmission.
These factors and others also mean these discussions have to start now — yes, in August — so that everyone is on the same page. Since people have spent months now feeling out their own comfort zones, there is the potential for disagreement about how stringently to take certain measures. Will you always wear masks around each other? Will you form localized "cousin quarantine pods" to keep different groups of travelers separate? What is the understanding about leaving the family bubble to, say, go shopping or to a restaurant or see friends? What will you do about friends and family who aren't taking the outbreak seriously? Would a virtual Christmas dinner be a safer option, since Aunt Linda is immunocompromised?
Hard choices are going to have to be made by families; the decisions may still be months away, far enough off to feel safe from confronting, but they'll be here quicker than you realize. Americans will have to manage balancing common sense during a pandemic with their beloved holiday traditions, which will undoubtedly mean compromises (and maybe small mercies: caroling is probably off the table this year, sparing us all).
As the old American wartime favorite promises, I'll be home for Christmas. This year, you'll just have to plan far ahead if you don't want it to be only in your dreams.