We’re sorry to say that gathering with friends and family who don’t live with you continues to be risky, given rampant coronavirus spread across the U.S. This is especially true if these gatherings happen indoors, but it’s also especially painful with Hanukkah, Christmas, and other holiday celebrations right around the corner. Still, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, couldn’t be any clearer: Now is not the time for unsafe gatherings, festive or not.
In a video briefing with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on December 7, Dr. Fauci expressed support for recommendations limiting holiday gatherings to 10 or fewer people but cautioned that these restrictions may not go far enough. “Ten may even be a bit too much,” Dr. Fauci said.
It’s not just the number of people at a gathering that raises the risk, but also what their activities have been like in the weeks leading up to the gathering. “It’s the people who might be coming in from out of town,” Dr. Fauci explained. “You want to make sure you don’t have people who just got off a plane or a train. That’s even more risky than the absolute number.” (In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against traveling for Thanksgiving and generally recommends postponing travel right now until things are safer.)
“Make sure that when people come in, they’re not people that you have no idea where they’ve been or who they’ve been exposed to,” he added.
Then there’s the question of how strictly people adhere to safety rules when gathered together. It’s a natural thing to want to let your guard down around your family, Dr. Fauci acknowledged, especially around the holidays. But being lax about coronavirus precautions can put yourself and the people you love in significant danger. “You get indoors, you take your mask off because you’re eating and drinking, and you don’t realize that there may be somebody that you know that you love who is perfectly well with no symptoms and yet they got infected in the community and brought it into that small gathering that you’re now having in your home.”
Dr. Fauci also explained that even though the country is currently facing record-breaking numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, we still haven’t seen the peak surge of coronavirus cases from Thanksgiving. “It’s usually two and a half weeks from the time of the event,” he said. The Thanksgiving surge will lead right into the weeks of Christmas and Hannukah, when people tend to gather. “So you have a surge upon a surge, and then before you can handle that, more people are going to travel…They’re going to have more of those family and friends gatherings,” he explained.
We can’t ignore how other activities beyond these gatherings, like going to work, restaurants, or places of worship, absolutely factor into rising case counts. But small indoor gatherings with family and friends have still been a concern for many experts over the fall and winter months, as SELF previously reported. Without mitigation efforts, Dr. Fauci said “we could start to see things really get bad in the middle of January,” adding that it could be a “really dark time for us.”
So, he emphasized, “You want to be friendly, you want to be collegial, but you’ve really got to be careful.”
Back in October, Dr. Fauci highlighted a few key steps that can help to curb the spread of the coronavirus. They included wearing a mask, physically distancing from people outside your household, staying out of crowds, regularly washing your hands, and avoiding indoor gatherings with people you don’t live with. That advice still applies now, and it aligns with the advice public health experts often gave specifically surrounding how to stay safe at Thanksgiving gatherings.
If all goes well, Dr. Fauci feels hopeful that by the third quarter of 2021, we could vaccinate enough people that “we’ll be in good shape.” (The specifics of what “good shape” will look like depends on factors like if the vaccine only prevents symptomatic infections or if it can create actual immunity to the virus.) Hopefully by that time (if not before), we’ll also have the kind of systemic support we need for people to be able to actually do things like stay home from work without worrying about losing their jobs. But in order to get as many people in this country as possible to that point safely and healthfully, we need to do everything we can to limit the virus’s spread now.