The 2020 holiday season grows nearer each day, and, with it, pressure from family members to please come home, despite the still-ongoing, no-sign-of-stopping COVID-19 pandemic. For most people who live any significant distance from their family of origin, or even those who live near aging or otherwise immunocompromised relatives, 2020 has been a year without any family visits. The desire to finally cave—to book the cheap flight you’ve been watching for months in order to make your relatives happy and maybe even hug them for the first time in this awful year—is strong. In March, 100 years ago, a lot of people assumed things would be back to “normal” by now.
Of course that isn’t the case; thanks to an inept government, it remains unsafe and unwise to travel to stay with family this holiday season, and to gather with them indoors and/or unmasked at all. Just as has been the case since March, if you love your family, the best thing you can do for them is stay the hell away from them.
While most people realize that being around strangers or big groups indoors is a bad idea, others are still behaving like their friends and family couldn’t possibly be sick or at risk of getting each other sick. “What we're seeing as the increasing threat right now is actually acquisition of infection through small household gatherings,” CDC director Robert Redfield told reporters in mid-October. “Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it's really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting.”
Cautionary tales abound. In June, a birthday party in Texas caused at least 18 members of one family to become infected with COVID-19. In July, two physicians let their “guard down” by hosting a family gathering—mostly outside, but without masks—that spurred at least eight COVID-19 cases. And over the summer, a 13-year-old girl who had tested negative on an antigen test (the type of test used incorrectly by the White House) two days before developing some nasal congestion, gave COVID-19 to 11 relatives across four states. The CDC wrote a report on the event, not because it’s atypical, but because it’s increasingly common.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, it's my family. I'm going to go see my brother. I’m going to see my cousin,’ and they think that’s a safe word,” Ron Barbosa, the Texas man who didn’t get sick because he didn’t attend the birthday party with the rest of his family, told BuzzFeed News.
Months of living with this virus means we’ve had time to learn more about it, and also to get used to it. The former is a good thing—we now know that masks play a vital role in curbing spread, ventilation indoors is key, and social distancing and quarantining are highly effective for minimizing spread—but the latter is dangerous. There remains no wiggle room in the rules, no matter how incredibly tired we are of living by them.
As bioethicist Kelly Hills told VICE in July, we often assume our loved ones share our views toward pandemic safety—that “what I think is risky is what they think is risky, and what they think is common sense is what I think is common sense. It just doesn’t work like that,” she said. We also shouldn’t assume we’ve been careful enough for people to be safe around us. No one thinks they are going to be the one to sicken or kill their loved ones, but people are still getting infected by those they know, and are even related to.
Maybe you’re someone who understands this, who knows that going home for the holidays is a bad idea, and are already planning new, safer ways to celebrate the upcoming season without risking the health of your loved ones. But if your boomer parents, or your grandparents, or your sibling, or whoever is still on your case about coming home, and is sure that COVID wouldn’t possible dare show its face at a “safe, small” family gathering, perhaps send them this recent account from a former COVID-denier of his family weekend in Texas that resulted in tragedy. Just after Governor Greg Abbott released the state from its brief lockdown and said small gatherings were probably fine, Green invited the family to his house, a visit that spurred at least 14 cases that resulted in multiple hospital stays—including his own—and at least two deaths.
“How many people would have gotten sick if I’d never hosted that weekend? One? Maybe two?” Green told the Washington Post. “The grief comes in waves, but that guilt just sits.”
The desire to see family right now, to hug them and share big piles of food with them around a table where everyone’s laughing and pretending the rest of this year didn’t exist, is so strong, it hurts. But the guilt over sickening a family member—or worse—would be even more painful. There will come a holiday season where all of our favorite things are possible again. Strongly consider that this isn’t the one. While choosing the safety of a holiday season apart might be hard for everyone involved, it may be ultimately easier to swallow than the potential consequences of indulging the desire to be close.
Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.