For some families, COVID-19 still upends vacation plans
JUlie, who is 38 and lives in North Carolina, considers herself, her husband and their two children to be “COVID zero people”. Motivated by studies on the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 on the body, they orient their lives so as not to catch the virus. That means avoiding indoor spaces where people won’t be masked, often wearing masks outdoors, and looking for service providers who still take precautions, such as masking and using air purifiers. For the most part, says Julie, it’s fine. “There’s not much we don’t do,” she says – they just do in high quality masks. (Like others interviewed for this story, Julie asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family’s privacy.)
The holidays, however, present certain challenges. Julie’s relatives are no longer willing to take the security measures that would make her family to feel comfortable with them in person, she says, so her family group celebrates by “preparing better food” than usual and eating it at home. The hardest part, she says, is watching family members who were once open to self-isolation for 14 days before visits now forgo precautions, knowing that means Julie and her family won’t feel like they’re home. happy to join in the festivities.
“We don’t jump; we are excluded,” says Julie. If her loved ones were willing to wear good masks indoors and eat outdoors, she says she would be “mostly” comfortable getting together. But this will – so strong in 2020 – has now faded.
Other COVID-cautious people are likely facing similar disagreements with loved ones. According to Harris Poll data collected for TIME, holiday celebrations are returning to their pre-pandemic norms. This year, 72% of American adults plan to celebrate the holidays with at least one person outside their household, up from 81% before the pandemic, but down from 66% last year. About 45% plan to travel during this year’s holiday season, up from 58% before the pandemic and 42% last year.
But even as much of the country moves away from pandemic-era policies, many families still plan to spend the holidays together around Zoom screens and outdoor heat lamps, doing their best to bring “a side dish and a gift to the holiday dinner, not a virus”, as the saying goes. Claire, 39 years old. About 55% of American adults said COVID-19 would affect their vacation plans, according to data from the TIME-Harris poll. Even among those who will gather with others in person, around a third plan to limit the size of their celebrations, while 12% said they would need masks or hold the event outdoors.
Claire and her husband, who live in the South, will do all of the above. They were careful about the spread of the disease even before the pandemic, because they have a 4-year-old child who was born prematurely and who could suffer serious complications from respiratory illnesses. This holiday season, they’ll band together and wear masks to celebrate on the patio of Claire’s in-laws house. For Thanksgiving dinner, they will eat at opposite corners of the patio before putting their masks back on. If it is too cold at Christmas to open presents outside, they will exchange presents and then return to their respective homes to unwrap them.
That’s how they’ve been doing it since 2020, Claire says, but she recognizes the system requires sacrifice. She doesn’t feel comfortable attending her grandma’s big multi-family Thanksgiving dinner and she mostly sees her friends and their kids via Zoom these days. But for Claire, the downsides pale in comparison to keeping her family healthy in the face of a virus that, for a subset of people who catch it, can potentially lead to lifelong disability. “I’m in a situation where I can protect my child and protect us, and I’m going to do whatever I can,” she said.
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Other families with risk factors are also going to great lengths to avoid the virus. Karen, who is 39 and lives in Tennessee, had post-viral complications, including chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia for 22 years, since catching mono as a teenager and never fully recovering. A cold can put her to bed for six weeks. COVID-19, her doctor had warned her in 2020, could be catastrophic for her health.
As the virus continues to spread widely, Karen, her husband and their toddler remain almost completely locked down, mostly venturing out for medical appointments and remote outdoor activities such as bike rides, picnics and hikes. When friends come, his family visits them through a window. That means large holiday gatherings are out of the question for the foreseeable future.
“It’s always been really important to me to have an open house for anyone who didn’t have a place to go” during the holidays, says Karen. But these days, her doors remain closed to everyone except her husband’s parents, who live locally and lead similarly closed lives.
Max, who is 26 and lives in New York, is following his parents’ lead when it comes to the virus. Her parents wear masks everywhere and avoid riskier environments, like restaurants and cinemas, because COVID-19 can be serious for people in their age group. Max chose to spend Thanksgiving with his girlfriend’s family rather than his own to avoid worrying his parents about potentially getting sick.
He can go home for the winter break, he says, because he will have more time to quarantine and test himself beforehand. Max says he’d feel good about giving up those precautions if his parents didn’t ask for them anymore, but for now, he’s happy to do whatever makes them feel comfortable. “I understand the principle that the people most at risk make the rules,” he says.
Not everyone is so understanding. Kara Darling, who is 46 and lives in Delaware, is in the process of divorcing her husband because he was ready to “reintegrate” into society when the vaccines were rolled out, and she chose to remain very cautious about to COVID by working remotely, homeschooling your children and only socializing with those willing to take strict precautions. Darling’s position is informed by both her work as a practice and research manager at a clinic that treats people with complex illnesses, which exposed her to the realities of life with Long COVIDand by the fact that three of her children have overactive immune systems.
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“You mourn your plans and the reality you thought you had and what you thought life was going to be like,” she says. “When you come to acceptance, the question becomes, ‘Am I going to sit and bemoan the existence of a life I wish I had, or am I going to pivot?'”
Darling chose to pivot. She runs several Facebook groups for people who are “still COVIDing”, i.e. still taking precautions against infection with the virus. She also set up a recurring outdoor get-together for homeschooled children in her area and cultivated a community eager to create new holiday traditions for the pandemic era. Families in her “always COVIDing” circle postcards ahead of Valentine’s Day and treats for Halloween. They swap home-cooked meals at Thanksgiving and eat them together on Zoom. They leave gifts on porches for birthdays and honk when they drive by to say hello.
Darling’s Thanksgiving will be small this year – just his family, his eldest son and his son’s girlfriend, cooking and eating together at home. (Darling’s son and his girlfriend don’t live with her, so they’ll avoid unnecessary public activity, wear respirators, and test several times over the 10 days before coming.) But outside the walls of her home , Darling has built connections that help her through the dark times.
“It’s about being part of a community,” she says. “We have built a family of trust.”
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