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We Answer Your Questions About How To Celebrate The Holidays Safely


The holidays are around the corner, but, of course, 2020 is not a normal year. The country is close to logging more confirmed coronavirus cases each day, likely soon passing the peak back in July. Cases are on the rise in almost every U.S. state. So what's a family to do? We asked listeners to send in questions that they have about traveling and seeing loved ones this holiday season. We've got NPR reporters Allison Aubrey on the health beat and David Schaper, who covers travel, to help answer these questions.

Welcome to you both.


DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

CORNISH: Now, I think what's top of mind for a lot of people is whether there actually is a safe way for families to come together for the holidays. Here's one take on that question from Maureen Arrigo in San Diego.

MAUREEN ARRIGO: I wanted to know when it was going to be safer to get together with grandchildren, particularly in my case, where my husband and I are both in our 70s. We don't have any other vulnerabilities, just our age.

CORNISH: Allison?

AUBREY: You know, I think what's important to keep in mind right now, Audie, is that infections are on the rise in so many parts of the country. The virus is circulating widely. And all of the infectious disease experts I talked to say the next three months are going to be a big challenge. So the holidays just aren't going to be the same.

There's just no such thing as zero risk when we get together with family members. I mean, age is a risk factor. And though people who are 70 and healthy would likely do better than people with more risk factors and chronic diseases if they were to get infected, it's really a bit of the roll of the dice. I mean, the virus is unpredictable. And I think, bottom line, if the grandkids have been exposed, we know it's possible for them to be asymptomatic and transmit it. I mean, Maureen Arrigo says she's from San Diego. Given the weather there, outdoor, socially-distanced visits would probably be lower-risk and the best option.

CORNISH: We have a slightly different take on that same issue. It's from Emily Daly in Long Pond, Pa. She writes, (reading) I want to visit my 97-year-old mother in Miami. I feel she really needs a visit. Will she be safe seeing me?


SCHAPER: Well, the first thing to keep in mind is the CDC warns of travel. Any travel increases your chances of getting or spreading COVID-19, so staying at home is the safest way to protect yourself and others. But this is a tough one because I think a lot of people are in this situation - not being able to see their older parents or grandparents in such a long time.

So the first part of the answer is, how would you get there? And, you know, Miami is a long way from Pennsylvania. But if possible, Emily might want to consider driving because health experts say there's actually less risk driving. I talked to epidemiologist Mercedes Carnethon at Northwestern University here in Chicago, and she says that's because so much of the time you're in your own personal vehicle either alone or only with those you live with.

MERCEDES CARNETHON: And it's really only those stops in the interim to get gas, to stop to pick up food - which you hopefully consume only around your household - and even interactions in a hotel if you have to stay overnight. So that's clearly the safest form of transportation.

AUBREY: And, you know, keep in mind, Audie, incubation of the virus is up to 14 days. Usually it's shorter, but up to two weeks. So if you are exposed during travel, you could become infectious during the period of your visit. Now, this might not be practical, but the safest strategy is, once you arrive, to wait to have that visit for up to two weeks. The other option is to get frequent testing upon arrival.

SCHAPER: One other thing to keep in mind is that some states require that you quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or that you show proof of a negative COVID test before you arrive.

CORNISH: But, David, can we come back to flying for a second? What is the guidance there? What do we know about what airlines are doing?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the airlines do insist that it's safe. They point to studies showing that there are relatively few confirmed cases of in-flight transmissions. There's a new study that was actually released last week by the Defense Department showing that the hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems on the plane and the way they flow downward from the ceiling to the floor makes transmission of the virus through small, airborne particles very unlikely. Let's go back to Dr. Carnethon at Northwestern. She says as long as everyone is wearing a mask and following proper protocols, she'd be comfortable sitting on a plane.

CARNETHON: That said, there are many other areas that you come in contact with to get onto an airplane, such as the airport. Is it crowded? Moving around at an airport and different surfaces - but the actual plane flight does not trouble me personally.

SCHAPER: Yeah, so there are those places in the airport where social distancing may be difficult. When you're lining up to get a cup of coffee or even at security, you know, they'll space you out or try to tell you to stay on the markings on the floor. But some people may not follow those guidelines.

CORNISH: I want to move on to another question, this one from Jocelyn Nassar in San Mateo, Calif. This is a question about college visitors.

JOCELYN NASSAR: I'm just wondering how to handle having my two kids come home for Thanksgiving and winter breaks. They both go to school in different states. And we've been very careful, and I'm just concerned about having them come back into our home, especially since one lives in an area where people aren't wearing masks as much as we do here.

CORNISH: Schools have been all over the place in terms of guidance here. Allison, what's the best approach for parents?

AUBREY: You know, find out if the college campus where your kids are coming from has exit testing. Just as many campuses required entry testing at the start of the semester to make sure kids weren't coming in at the start with a COVID infection, some schools will give students tests the day of or the day before departure. I spoke to Bill Miller - he's a physician and epidemiologist at Ohio State - about this, and he has another tip to gauge the risk.

BILL MILLER: Many, many campuses have dashboards available. You can see whether there have been lots of cases or hardly any cases. The main reason for looking is to give yourself some understanding of the risk that is about to be undertaken.

AUBREY: So if the level of spread within a campus has been low, that is a useful data point. And it's not unreasonable to ask your college-age students to get a COVID test if the school isn't offering one up, especially if you have high-risk people in your household.

CORNISH: We've been talking about people who need to travel to see loved ones, but there are listeners who are curious about getting together with people who live nearby. Here's Katie Cullen in Brooklyn.

KATIE CULLEN: My question is I do not feel safe eating or doing any other activity indoors without a mask. What are some suggestions for safe winter activities once it gets too cold? How can we socially distance visit with friends safely when parks aren't an option?

CORNISH: Allison?

AUBREY: You know, I'd say rethink your idea of what is too cold. My...

CORNISH: OK, that's a rough answer.



AUBREY: My husband's family is of Swedish descent, and they're, you know - they're of the thinking that you just get out there, that there's no such thing as bad weather. There's just under-dressing. So it's - and I'm sure David has more suggestions, given that you live in Chicago.

SCHAPER: Yeah. You know, we've been wearing scarves and balaclavas and ski masks for years before masking was cool. And we've been doing socially distanced outdoor gatherings, masked up get-togethers with a handful of friends either on a patio or around a fire pit. In fact, I just got an email from a friend who I haven't seen in a long time this morning saying that they're going to keep doing their little fire pit gatherings well into the winter. And so we should come over sometime.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper, who covers travel, and Allison Aubrey on the health and science beat.

Thank you so much.

SCHAPER: My pleasure.

AUBREY: Thanks for having me, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "SKY COULD UNDRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.