Saying no to holiday gatherings during COVID-19 can be painful

Psychiatrist offers tips for talking about family gatherings during a perilous holiday season


The message is not particularly pleasant or easy to deliver: The best gift we can give the people we care about this holiday season is their health, and their lives – which means do not visit. 

A great way to tell your family you love them is to keep them safe and still do a big virtual party
A great way to tell your family you love them is to keep them safe and still do a big virtual party

With COVID-19 cases roaring across the nation and some hospitals on the verge of being overrun, “do not visit” is the urgent recommendation from experts at UC Davis Health. It’s also the warning being broadcast nationally from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

But telling an older relative, or any loved one, that you won’t be coming this year or insisting to adult children they should not come home can be heartbreaking. And some families believe a visit is worth the risk. 

“Humans are social creatures. We like to be together,” said Shannon Suo, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “We have our families or our chosen families and it’s very difficult this time of year not to be with them.”

America faces a devastating tsunami of COVID-19 cases. The CDC reported nearly 1.5 million new cases in the U.S. in the past seven days. California has seen more than 220,000 new cases in that same one week stretch – that’s nearly 32,000 every day and far more than double from just two weeks earlier. All those totals are new records, and they are going up. 

That makes any social interaction outside our households more dangerous than they have ever been. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has lasted so long, people have become desensitized to the risk, Suo said. 

“We all feel like there is so much that we’re missing,” she said. “Some people are doing mental gymnastics to convince themselves it’s OK to gather because it’s the holidays. They want to believe in holiday miracles.” 

Unfortunately, she said, we’re not living in a holiday movie. 

“The virus does not respect traditions or religion or holiday miracles. It can kill family members or spread even more through our communities if we’re not careful.”

— Shannon Suo

“The virus does not respect traditions or religion or holiday miracles,” Suo said. “It can kill family members or spread even more through our communities if we’re not careful.” 

Try to be understanding

So how to do you say no to people aching to reconnect? And how do you warn family and friends who want to gather despite the danger? 

“With lots of love,” Suo said. 

Many health experts have tried a message that is straightforward: Show you love someone by keeping them alive. For some people, that is powerful. But, Suo said, after nine months of cautions, even advice like that can fail. 

So, she suggested looking for messages that will resonate with family members and possibly ease the pain of postponed holiday gatherings. Just as importantly, she said, if some people you care about insist on gathering anyway, send your regrets gently, without pointing fingers or condemnation. 

“People need to be comfortable with whatever they tell their families,” Suo said. “I don’t think many people are getting kicked out of families or disowned over this.” 

Messages to help warn about COVID-19 dangers

Health leaders everywhere, including Fauci and the CDC, pleaded with Americans to stay home over Thanksgiving. Many did not listen. It was the busiest travel period of 2020. 

The impact from those Thanksgiving visits now includes overcrowded hospitals and intensive care units in many places, new restrictions and stay-at-home orders, and more people sick and dying from COVID-19 than at any time of the pandemic. 

Bringing everyone – including pets – to the virtual party will add to the holiday feelings

Yet Fauci and other health leaders fear the December holidays will be worse. Why aren’t those messages connecting? 

“Everyone reacts to things differently,” Suo said. “People are being pulled from a lot of directions and family ties are very powerful. Also, given what they’ve been through, many people want to get lost in the season.” 

She said many people do respond to the frightening number of cases and deaths, the warnings and the shutdowns. Others need to think about it at a more personal level. 

“One strong message I’ve heard is, ‘Say hi to grandma on an iPad so you don’t have to say goodbye on an iPad in an ICU,’” she said. 

Or, she said, tell them real stories. 

“I know of a family that came to visit a new baby in the hospital, not ours but another good hospital,” she said. “One member infected many of them and they lost two people because of that. Fortunately, the mother survived, but that’s just devastating to the family and it will stay with them forever.” 

That’s something to remind family members. Think about the pain to the entire family if someone dies because of a holiday gathering. 

“And that’s when you can say you love them and want them alive so you can celebrate next year,” Suo said. 

Tips to keep gatherings safer

“But some people have just made up their minds, and the best you can do is help them be safe” Suo said. 

Be honest with them and say that you aren’t comfortable getting together but you wish them the happiest holidays anyway. 

“Say you love them and want them alive so you can celebrate next year … I think people are more understanding than we give them credit for.”

— Shannon Suo

“I think people are more understanding than we give them credit for,” Suo said. 

And if your family insists on gathering, maybe try some different strategies, like sending just one person to help an older family member join a virtual holiday. 

“One person wearing a mask and being very careful can bring food to great uncle Fred and help him join a Zoom celebration,” Suo said. 

Other tips to have less risky gatherings

  • No caroling or singing this year. That can spread the coronavirus farther and in much greater amounts than talking.
  • Keep everything small.
  • Try to stay outside where airflow can help dilute the virus.
  • Keep your event short. The longer you are together, the greater the risk of spreading enough of the virus to get people sick.
  • Assume anyone can spread COVID-19, no matter how healthy they appear. The CDC says up to 60 percent of COVID-19 transmissions come from people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they aren’t contagious.
  • If you must travel, go by car. Avoid air travel and especially airports.

 “Of course, the most important things are to wear your mask at all times and to socially distance,” Suo said. 

Remember, this is not forever

“We need to keep reminding ourselves and our families we’re in the homestretch with vaccines being given,” Suo said. “The best thing we can do for our families is hunker down for a little while longer.” 

That is especially important with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and with so much of the coronavirus spreading in the population. 

“The virus is unforgiving. It takes whatever opportunity it gets. It does not respect our timeline or our holidays,” Suo said. “But if we respect the dangers of COVID-19, our families will be around for a big celebration next year.”