Safe ways to enjoy the holidays in the age of COVID-19

As the holiday season approaches, we’re all going to feel the pull of our usual traditions. But with the coronavirus pandemic still looming, there are some serious safety considerations to take into account before kicking off any festivities.

Of course, we all wish things could go back to “normal” again.

But the fact is, our behavior is going to have a direct impact on just how long the virus sticks around and affects every aspect of our day-to-day—from job security all the way to enjoying a meal at a restaurant.

And just because you can do something or go somewhere, doesn’t mean you should

Some things still aren’t safe

Let’s start with this concerning finding: After analyzing data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, researchers found steady declines in viral transmission across the board—that is, until physical distancing rules loosened up.

Within eight weeks, only nine states still had low rates of transmission. The rest experienced significant reversals, regardless of the loosened restriction in question—from school, workplace, restaurant/bar, and recreational facility closures, to public event limitations and travel restrictions.1

These numbers send a clear warning: It simply isn’t safe to return to business as usual just yet. Which means that, heartbreaking as it is, packing three or four generations around a single giant table for Thanksgiving—much less attending all the usual holiday parties and events—isn’t necessarily going to be safe this year, either.

Now, I realize that many cities’ economies—including my own here in NYC—rely on revenue from bars and restaurants, in particular, to thrive. (Just as their patrons rely on these establishments to boost their quality of life.)

So from an economic perspective, I understand the fiery hoops cities are jumping through in order to keep their restaurants open—not least of all during the upcoming holiday season.

But… at what cost? Well, let’s take a closer look at the latest evidence…

Restaurants more than double the risk

As part of a very recent study, researchers compared 154 symptomatic COVID-positive adults with 160 adults who tested negative. Both groups were age-, sex-, and location-matched.

Researchers asked participants about their precautions and exposure activities, like mask-wearing, any small or large gatherings they may have attended in someone’s home, shopping, church visits, public transportation use, and any times they may have visited an office, salon, gym, bar, or coffee shop.

The subjects responded on a scale of one (“never”) to five (“always”). And while both groups reported a similar number of exposures, there were some notable differences…

Among people who tested positive, 42 percent reported close contact with an infected individual—versus only 14 percent of those who tested negative—more than half of which were, unsurprisingly, family members.

But there’s more: People who tested positive for COVID-19 were also 2.4 times more likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks prior. And COVID-positive people who hadn’t had contact with an infected individual were nearly three times as likely to have dined at a restaurant… and four times as likely to have gone to a bar or a café.2

Stay masked, and start cooking

There were some other relevant findings, too: Diners who tested positive for COVID-19 were also less likely to report that their fellow patrons were following recommended safety guidelines, like mask-wearing and social distancing.

And it’s worth noting that, among positive subjects, more than 70 percent reported always wearing a mask in public during the two weeks prior—roughly the same percentage as the COVID-negative subjects. Which just goes to show you that what the people around you are doing matters, too.

Of course, bars and restaurants in particular present a unique set of risks in this department. For one thing, masks can’t be worn while eating and drinking—whereas you can stay continuously masked while shopping or performing other indoor activities.

Secondly, most people go to a restaurant and take off their mask as soon as they sit down, only putting it back on when they leave. This is bending the rules by itself, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) safety recommendations urge patrons to stay masked unless actually eating or drinking.

And clearly, we can’t really count on businesses and patrons to follow these safety practices to a T.

The fact of the matter is, diners don’t have nearly enough control over any of these moving parts to guarantee a truly safe experience at the restaurants they visit. And unfortunately, it’s made these establishments a key factor behind the spread of COVID-19—as noted by the CDC.

So, before you head out for an annual holiday party in the coming months (and beyond), I urge you to take all of this into consideration. Instead, I hope you’ll do what I plan to do and cook at home. And, especially if you’ll be dining indoors, try to limit the guests surrounding your Thanksgiving dinner table. It may not be ideal, but it’s one way to help keep you and the people you love safe this holiday season.

SIDEBAR:

Not handy in the kitchen? No problem. You can watch my new show, Cooking with Dr. Fred, on Instagram TV, @drfrednyc, and on my YouTube channel, The Dr. Fred Show. Be sure to start following me today so you never miss a cooking demo in the future!

References:

  1. Tsai AC, et al. “COVID-19 transmission in the U.S. before vs. after relaxation of statewide social distancing measures.” Clin Infect Dis. 2020 Oct 3;ciaa1502.
  2. “Restaurants May Be Key Component to COVID-19 Spread.” Medscape Medical News, 09/15/2020. (medscape.com/viewarticle/937430)

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