Alice Alvero, 70, who lives in Reno, planned to drive to eastern Nevada to visit her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren for Christmas Day.
Then, weeks ago, the Omicron variant began its march across the country and health officials predicted yet another surge in COVID-19 cases by January. That news, plus the knowledge that her rural relatives scoff at virus precautions, caused her to cancel a trip she had been looking forward to for three years.
“It was a really hard call,” said Alvero, who didn’t want her real name used in this story. “But do I make them happy and risk getting COVID, or worse, bringing infection to them? … I really wanted to see my grandkids again; they are growing up so fast. But the more I thought about it, it was too big a risk.”
This Yule season, the specter of COVID-19 still looms over holiday gatherings. When invited, should you stay or should you go? Should you host a gathering? Last year, expert guidance about holiday parties was fairly clear: stay within your household group. This year, advice is all over the map and people have a pent-up desire to be with family and friends.
Edward Perotti, a Los Angeles-based event designer, said although there is no universal guidance covering holiday gatherings, “this is no time to let your guard down.
“We can’t,” he said. “I’m just like everyone else; I want to be together with my family, who I haven’t seen for two years. I get it, but people have to take precautions for themselves and everyone else.”
Perotti, who Beverly Hills Magazine called “the world’s most in demand event designer,” has created destination events from the Palace of Versailles to the Great Wall of China. Since March 2020, he been offering advice about how hosts and guest can cope with COVID-19 precautions at gatherings.
“As the host or hostess of an event, be it family or friends or whatever, you have to think of not just your personal safety and comfort, but you have to think about it for your guests, even if they are not,” Perotti said. “And they may not be thinking about it, because everyone wants to get together and protocols are the last thing they want to worry about.”
Some Truckee Meadows’ residents told the RN&R how they are handing their holiday fetes.
“We are celebrating the holidays with my mom and dad,” said Liz McFarland of Reno. “Everyone in our small family needs to be vaccinated or have taken an instant test. We have about a dozen people that are vaccinated. We have some young kids that aren’t, so they will get the swab test. We have an aunt that had a health scare last year, so we want to make sure that even though she’s vaccinated she doesn’t catch COVID.”
Chuck Gibbons, a Sparks delivery driver, said his long-time neighbors cancelled their traditional holiday open house party last year, but “are bound and determined” to hold it a few days after Christmas. The whole block received printed invitations, he said, but there was no mention of masks, vaccinations or other precautions against the virus.
“I’m out,” Gibbons said. “I assume (the hosts) are vaccinated, because we talked about it months ago, but I can’t speak for the rest of the block. If (the hosts) didn’t even think about that when they invited people, that’s not a good sign.”
Perotti said hosts should address the issue when they invite folks to a gathering and those who attend should observe COVID-19 protocols, even when vaccines are a prerequisite for attendance.
“We don’t know everybody’s personal life,” he said. “We don’t know who they have been in contact with. We don’t know anything 100 percent. So keep the masks on.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Perotti has provided advice for staying safe at gatherings, including holding parties where masks have a central role. Those include a theme of “ugly masks” or asking children to create masks for the guests as a crafts project.
“I’m not going to say don’t have parties,” he said. “But put some thought behind it. I’m saying do it with caution.”
A change in the COVID climate
Some of the people who responded to the RN&R’s requests for comment on social media noted they attended some gatherings this year, but were always concerned about the spread of the contagion.
“I’m not having any holiday parties but I did require vaccination for my gatherings over the summer,” said Jackie Ruiz Shelton. “We went on the honor system though. I didn’t check.”
Tracie Douglas of Reno said she attended her niece’s wedding in California in August. The invitations noted that vaccines were required. “…So I felt very comfortable,” she said. “Right now, I’m unwilling to attend parties where I’m not sure everyone is vaccinated, and most people wouldn’t be masked while enjoying all the food and drink. I have autoimmune issues, so I’m way pickier than most people.”
Douglas said she almost decided against attending a traditional Christmas Eve gathering with friends. “But since there will only be six of us, and we’re all vaccinated and boosted, we’re on!”
Living with Omicron
Brooke Lynn McGowan, a Californian who now lives in New York City, noted that she and her husband held a “pretty big” indoor party for their daughter’s birthday earlier this year. “That was pre-Omicron,” she said. “I was upfront on the invite that vaccines were required for (guests) over 12, and masks were expected except when eating and drinking, including for the kids).”
Someone was stationed at the door of the venue to check vaccine cards. That wasn’t a big problem for guests because vaccines were already required for indoor dining in the city. No one got sick afterward, she said.
Since then, New York City has become the epicenter of the spread of the Omicron variant in the U.S. Broadway shows have gone dark and many restaurants are again closing their doors. “As of right now, basically all parties have been cancelled, period,” McGowan said.
Rolling the pandemic dice
In Reno, though, some revelers are taking their chances.
Vance Parnell, 28, a Reno IT consultant, said he’s been verbally invited to two holiday parties so far and neither host mentioned the virus. He didn’t ask.
“I’m vaccinated, boosted and going,” he said. “I’ve had enough (of the pandemic). If I catch something, I’m in good health and I don’t think it would hit me that hard… As far as I’m concerned, COVID is over for Christmas.”
But putting on blinders isn’t the best course, Perotti said. “One thing I think that seems a little empowering is that you don’t have to invite everybody, nor do you have to accept every invite that comes,” he said. “You can decline and the host or hostess shouldn’t view that in a bad light.”
Those who aren’t sure how a host will be handling pandemic gatherings should ask about how many people are going to the event, who is invited and whether there will be any precautions required. He said one of his friends covered all those bases.
“He put (the issue) out there in the invitation,” Perotti said. The host referred to attendance, as well as vaccination status and mask requirements. “And he gave everyone an out: ‘If you’re not comfortable, no problem, we’ll see each other in the new year.’”
The bottom line, he said, is to “make an informed decision that works for your family. Be informed, be safe and be smart.”
Alvero didn’t have to do any research about her son’s attitudes about the pandemic. She has been hearing his conspiracy theories for more than a year.
“He thinks it changes your DNA,” she said. “He and his family aren’t vaccinated and he won’t wear a mask, even in stores where it’s required. He’s a wonderful son and father, but he believes the pile of poop that right-wing media is spreading. You can’t reason with that.”
Perotti said precautions will probably remain after the latest variant runs its course.
“At the end of the day, it’s not going to go away,” he said. “Something will replace it. Having to be on your guard, both for yourself and guests isn’t going away.
“Start figuring out how to navigate it moving forward. How do you start normalizing this? (It’s) not giving up, but having that thought process of caring about everybody around you, not just yourself.”
Those tips include:
- If you are sick or have symptoms, don’t host or attend a gathering.
- If you’re hosting a party, you should rely on a combination of safety strategies, like wearing masks and maintaining social distance.
- If anyone at your party is unvaccinated (or unwilling to share their status), you’ll face a higher risk of getting sick or transmitting the virus to someone else, even if you’re fully vaccinated yourself. Beware of that risk and consider it when deciding to attend.
- Protect those not yet eligible for vaccination such as young children by getting yourself and other eligible people around them vaccinated.
- Even those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in public indoor settings in communities with substantial-to-high transmission. That definition includes nearly all Nevada counties.
- Outdoors is safer than indoors. Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
- Consider using a self-test before joining indoor gatherings with others who are not in your household. A positive self-test result means that you have an infection and should avoid indoor gatherings to reduce the risk of spreading disease to someone else.
- People who have a medical condition or are taking medications that weaken their immune system may not be fully protected even if they are fully vaccinated. They should continue to take all precautions recommended for unvaccinated people, including wearing a well-fitted mask, until advised otherwise by their healthcare provider.
- You might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission if a member of your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.
- If you are gathering with a group of people from multiple households and potentially from different parts of the country, you could consider additional precautions, including avoiding crowded indoor spaces before travel and taking a test, in advance of gathering to further reduce risk.
- Stay flexible. Be willing to change your plans if Omicron proves more dangerous in the coming weeks as scientists gather more information about the variant — even if it means bailing on your holiday party at the last second.
Ultimately, the most reliable way to have safe and festive holiday parties is to get vaccines and boosters when you’re eligible, experts said. Even a single dose of a vaccine a few days before the party is better than no vaccine at all. Regardless of anyone’s vaccination status, if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or were recently exposed to someone who has it, you should skip the holiday party and get tested.