The holidays will look different this year as the number of COVID-19 cases increase. Consider some fun alternatives to still connect with loved ones and celebrate together, virtually. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Normally the days leading up to the holidays are a time of finalizing travel plans, making shopping lists and prepping recipes for family gatherings.

But this year medical experts are urging folks to make a different kind of plan: how to have pandemic-safe celebrations.

Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, believes the holidays could be a dangerous tipping point.

She’s not alone in her concern. The exponential rise in COVID-19 cases in the month leading up to Thanksgiving has the medical community raising the alarm.

“We need to be extremely cautious,” Dr. Olivero said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released recommendations, listing factors to consider before making your plans and categorizing holiday activities based on their level of risk.

In the highest risk group is a common tradition for many families: attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside your immediate household.

Dr. Olivero said these kinds of gatherings, indoors and without masks while eating and socializing, are linked to the vast majority of cases of COVID-19—not schools and workplaces.

“These are exactly the types of events that are resulting in the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” she said. “All of the loveliness that comes with those kinds of gatherings comes with risk. Unfortunately, that’s the reality.”

Other activities landing on the CDC’s list of high-risk activities are shopping in crowded stores, participating in or being a spectator at sporting events, attending crowded parades, and using alcohol or drugs that may lead to an increase in risky behavior.

Among the CDC’s lower risk activities are having a small dinner with only the people who live in your immediate household, contactless delivery of food to friends and neighbors, virtual gatherings, online shopping, and watching sports and parades from home.

The CDC also warned about the risk associated with holiday travel. Dr. Olivero said that applies not only to travel by air, but also car travel to different parts of the state or country.

“Traveling can increase your risk of contracting COVID-19, or spreading it as you go,” she said.

If people do opt to gather despite the recommendations and risk, Dr. Olivero urged them to remember to wear masks, stay at least 6 feet away from others, wash or sanitize hands frequently, be outside rather than inside if possible, and open windows to keep fresh air circulating inside.

Dr. Olivero stressed there are still plenty of safe ways to experience all the things we love about the holidays. She suggested several creative, fun, COVID-safe activities:

  • Make baked goods or favorite holiday dishes and deliver them in a contactless way to friends, family and neighbors.
  • Find a special way to remember and honor those in the community who have been particularly impacted by COVID-19, including those who have lost employment, the elderly or essential workers.
  • Host a virtual cooking competition with family members from around the world. If cooking’s not your thing, host a talent show, craft night or decorating competition.
  • Engage in an outdoor decorating extravaganza and share a video or photos of your creation with family and friends near and far.
  • Participate in board games, trivia or family “I remember when” story time via Zoom, FaceTime or another online platform.
  • Scrapbook or make online photo books of family and friend gatherings past.
  • Send out special handwritten notes, emailed cards, or special gifts in advance of the holiday.
  • Create a care package for a loved one that’s themed for the holiday.
  • When it’s time to sit down to the table to eat your holiday meal, gather with friends and family by Zoom, FaceTime or another online platform.
  • Give the gift of life by donating blood or plasma, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Have a recipe swap with friends and family and try their dishes in your home.
  • Find a charity you and your extended family believe in and learn how, together, you can help the cause.

“We should try to have as much fun with it as possible, because we want to be able to offset the anxiety of it all,” Dr. Olivero said.