Passover, Easter, and Ramadan will be a little less lonely this year as more people get vaccinated for the coronavirus. But experts say we can’t let down our guard just yet.
by Christina Caron, © 2021 The New York Times Company
The weather is warming, the days are looking brighter and the number of people getting vaccinated is on the rise. So can we finally celebrate the spring holidays together like we used to, back when we could see the bottom halves of everyone’s faces?
Well, not exactly.
Although coronavirus cases and deaths are declining nationwide and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued new, looser safety guidelines for vaccinated people, the agency recommended against unmasked indoor gatherings with unvaccinated people except in certain circumstances.
We asked public health experts to help us understand the latest guidance and offer advice on how to safely observe upcoming holidays such as Easter, Passover and Ramadan.
Do we need to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart?
According to the CDC, if the people in your home have been fully vaccinated, meaning at least two weeks have passed since each person’s final shot, you can spend time together unmasked with the unvaccinated members of one other household — either indoors or outdoors — without physical distancing. But this holds true only if all of the unvaccinated people are not at increased risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19, the agency said.
The risk of transmission between a vaccinated household and an unvaccinated household “is incredibly low,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious-diseases physician at Boston Medical Center.
And when both households are vaccinated, the risk is even lower, he added.
Erica Fleischer, 42, a public-policy expert and mother of two who lives in Chicago, said her family would typically celebrate Passover Seder, held on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, at her in-laws’ home, surrounded by as many as 20 people.
Last year, they met virtually, but this year, given the new CDC guidance, her unvaccinated family will have a small dinner with her in-laws, who have each received the vaccine.
Fleischer said she feels “pretty confident” the risks of infecting one another are low. “I think I actually needed more convincing than my in-laws did.”
Dr. Shaun Din, 35, a radiation oncologist in Manhattan, is planning to spend part of the holy month of Ramadan with nearby family members. Five of the eight adults, including Din and his parents, have been vaccinated, so the family feels comfortable meeting unmasked on weekends for the evening iftars that break each daylong fast.
“Last year was very lonely, not being able to celebrate together,” Din said. “Ramadan is difficult, but the communal aspect of all of us going through it and then breaking the fast together is something that’s very fun.”
Can we invite more than one household?
If you are fully vaccinated and you would like to invite other fully vaccinated friends over for dinner, the CDC says, that “it is likely a low risk” and that there is no need to wear masks or stay physically distanced.
Even so, keep the get-together small. The CDC advises against medium- or large-size gatherings, although it hasn’t defined what constitutes medium or large.
“Variants are circulating, and the vaccines might not be quite as effective against them,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies viruses in the air.
If you plan to mix unvaccinated people from multiple households, experts suggest, hold the gathering outside, stay 6 feet apart and wear masks.
And if you decide to spend time indoors with unvaccinated people from other households, wear a mask and open the windows to improve the ventilation, said Shelly Miller, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who studies airborne-disease transmission in enclosed spaces. She also suggested using a HEPA filter air cleaner certified by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
What about unvaccinated kids?
The coronavirus vaccine is not available to most children because clinical trial results are still forthcoming.
Say there are two healthy families of four. If the kids aren’t vaccinated in either household but all of the adults are, you might consider inviting people inside as long as the windows are open and everyone is wearing masks, said Dr. Asaf Bitton, a primary care physician who runs a public health research laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. If the kids in neither household are vaccinated and only one set of adults has been vaccinated, he and other experts said, an outdoor gathering with masks and distancing would be safest.
You may also be wondering if your unvaccinated children can finally get a hug and kiss from their healthy, vaccinated grandmother. On this question, the experts’ opinions diverged. But in general, if everyone is healthy and you’re comfortable accepting some degree of risk, a hug or kiss is probably fine.
“The likelihood that my kid transmits a virus that ends up causing severe disease in my vaccinated parents is very, very low,” Barocas said.
Similarly, he added, it’s unlikely that a vaccinated adult would transmit the virus to a child. That said, the experts advised doing what feels right to you and your family.
“I think everyone going into that visit needs to understand that we’re balancing risks and benefits,” said Dr. Adam Ratner, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at New York University Langone Health. But, he added, if the grandparents are vaccinated, “I am pro hugging and kissing.”
Jennifer Rogers, 46, a lawyer in Philadelphia, said her husband and two children, 8 and 11, will celebrate Easter by visiting her parents’ home for several hours. They’re planning on having an outdoor Easter egg hunt and whacking away at a coronavirus-shaped piñata. But the kids, who will be joined by Rogers’ sister and her sister’s son, will all be wearing masks. Rogers and her husband are both vaccinated, but they are planning to wear masks, too, because their family will have recently returned from a Florida vacation.
“It still feels like a loss, like it’s not the same as it’s been,” said Rogers, whose family typically stays overnight at her parents’ home during the holiday.
Can our fully vaccinated relatives fly out to see us?
The CDC is still saying no.
“We know that after mass travel, after vacations, after holidays, we tend to see a surge in cases,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said recently on MSNBC. “And so, we really want to make sure — again with just 10% of people vaccinated — that we are limiting travel.”
We are also still learning whether vaccinated people without symptoms can unknowingly carry infections to the households that they are visiting, Bitton said.
“Travel in little metal tubes and crowded airports and taxicabs brings risks of transmission,” he added.
Danielle Nuzzo, 36, a communications manager whose family celebrates Easter and Passover, lives in California with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, across the country from both sets of grandparents. As soon as the grandparents got vaccinated, they asked if they could visit during the holidays, she said. But Nuzzo and her husband are not vaccinated yet, and they didn’t feel comfortable hosting anyone who had just hopped off a plane. In the end, they decided they will celebrate just as they did last year: over Zoom.
“It’s really hard. It’s emotional,” Nuzzo said. “We want her to know who her grandparents are and see them. But we also want to do what’s right and just be safe.”
If your family does decide to travel, first get fully vaccinated for the coronavirus, if you are eligible, and also get a COVID-19 test one to three days before the trip, the CDC recommends. All travelers, regardless of whether they are vaccinated, must wear a mask; try to stay at least 6 feet from others; get tested again three to five days after your trip and quarantine for seven days, even if your test is negative. (If you don’t get tested, the CDC says, you should quarantine for 10 days.)
Check your state and local requirements because different areas have different rules. New York state, for example, says domestic travelers do not need to quarantine during the first three months after being fully vaccinated, provided that they are asymptomatic.
What if my relatives and I disagree about what’s safe?
After a year of public health warnings, some family members might feel uneasy about loosening the rules while others might be eager to get back to normal.
Last year, ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Claudia Allen, a clinical psychologist and director of the Family Stress Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, told The New York Times that if there are differences of opinion, it’s important not to pass judgment, start lecturing or assume that your relatives have bad motives.
“The people who are willing to take more risks are usually doing it because they’re valuing connection. And the people who are less willing to take risks are usually less willing because they are prioritizing safety. Connection and safety are both good,” Allen said at the time.
The same advice applies for spring holidays. “A new tricky aspect is that some people are vaccinated and others aren’t,” she said.
If you’re at odds with a family member, don’t forget to recognize the other person’s good intentions, even if you ultimately have to agree to disagree, Allen said. Take a moment to also acknowledge their feelings and the uncertainty of the situation and say, “I totally understand your caution; we each have to try to weigh the risks as best we can.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.