In some ways, the coronavirus is still a mystery. Scientists can’t say for certain why it’s deadly or debilitating in some people but has virtually no effect in others. They don’t know exactly how long immunity lasts or whether (or when) a vaccine will stop its spread and bring this wretched chapter to a close.
But they do know this: The virus spreads most rampantly between people who gather indoors, in close quarters, to talk or laugh or sing, without wearing masks. Experts say the wave of outbreaks now sweeping the nation has been caused by precisely these types of gatherings.
As gut-wrenching as this may be, one of the most obvious ways to mitigate further viral spread will be for as many people as possible to stay home this holiday season. Even before the recent spike in cases, scientists knew that holidays were risky business. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend were all followed by measurable spikes in case counts. The fall and winter holidays are likely to be much worse, because they tend to involve more travel and indoor gatherings.
In normal times, some 50 million Americans usually travel at least 50 miles for Thanksgiving dinner, according to AAA and as noted in The Atlantic. This year, especially, the need to draw loved ones close feels urgent, and the idea of sacrificing one more sacred tradition in a year when we have already sacrificed so much feels deeply unfair. But skipping or severely curtailing in-person holiday celebrations now is as much a civic duty and an act of solidarity as wearing a mask in public or standing at least six feet apart.
The coronavirus is surging again, not just in a few hot spots but across the country, with an average of 59,000 new cases per day — as high as that number has been since August. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled indoor gatherings with far-flung relatives as “higher risk” and is advising people to keep these get-togethers as small as possible and to hold them outdoors if they can. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease control expert, has said that, for safety’s sake, he won’t be seeing his own children this Thanksgiving.
It’s tempting to view the coming holiday season as a well-earned respite from a year filled with hardships. But, as others have argued, those hardships are precisely the point. Children have all but lost a year of schooling, small business owners have seen their livelihoods destroyed, people everywhere have watched loved ones die alone, in nursing homes and hospital wards where restrictions related to Covid-19 prohibited visitors. Failed leadership and failed policy have exacerbated all of these tragedies. Individual or family sacrifices, made for the greater good, have helped.
Taking unnecessary risks now would be an affront to all those sacrifices. What will have been the point of closing schools, hobbling industries or swapping so many human interactions for so many virtual ones? So much of it will have been for naught if a surge of holiday travel gives way to a tsunami of outbreaks and, ultimately, more death.
It’s true that not all gatherings are the same and that individual families can minimize their risks by taking precautions — by keeping gatherings small, by holding them outdoors and by testing and quarantining before and after travel. But those things are all much easier to do for families of means, who are more likely to have spacious, easily ventilated kitchens, space to gather outside, easy access to diagnostic testing and the ability to quarantine.
What’s more, low risk is not the same as no risk, and when it comes to the coronavirus, all risk is ultimately shared. The danger is not individual — it’s collective. The decisions you make are not only about whether you might infect your own grandmother, they’re about whether your family gathering will seed an outbreak that could ultimately infect someone else’s grandmother. The more people gather from far and wide, around densely packed tables, to eat and talk and occasionally shout, the more the coronavirus will spread. That’s an indisputable truth that no amount of wishful thinking or careful planning can undo.
Zoom gatherings will never fully match the intimacy of in-person ones. But they can help keep families connected and maybe even preserve some traditions. Social media is full of suggestions for how to make virtual holidays more festive, like pie-baking over FaceTime and cooking and eating the same meal across different tables and time zones.
It might also help to remember that, with vaccines and therapeutics progressing through the pipeline, there’s every reason to hope that next year’s holiday season can be celebrated in person again.
If the past nine months have made anything clear, it’s that nobody is coming to save us. That’s scary and enraging, but it’s also liberating — because we’re learning how to save ourselves.
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