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What's Your Pandemic Holiday Risk Tolerance?

With omicron on the rise, comfort levels around socializing differ this season

a family greeting each other at christmas on their front porch

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

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Susan Goodfellow isn’t going to Denver for Christmas to see her daughter and her fiancé, who are both unvaccinated. Goodfellow and her husband didn’t make it there for Thanksgiving either. Her doctor told her not to do it.

Goodfellow, 72, of Georgetown, Texas, didn’t have to wrestle with the decision facing so many this holiday season.

“He said I could probably go as long as I didn’t get out in the general public too much,” she says. “But all of a sudden, Denver (coronavirus) spiked ... and then I couldn’t go.”

The couple stayed home by themselves at Thanksgiving and will do the same for Christmas.

Evaluate your risk tolerance this holiday

Ask yourself a few questions in order to think through whether an event is worth attending:  

Are you fully vaccinated and boosted? If so, it’s much safer to gather with others, even with the omicron variant circulating.

Do you have underlying health conditions? If that's the case, consult your doctor about how to approach holiday gatherings.

Do you know whether the people you’re gathering with are vaccinated? If you don’t know their status, especially when it comes to younger children, consider precautions like masking indoors to minimize exposure.

How big is the gathering you want to attend and what is the setting? Determine what size gathering feels comfortable to you and whether you are open to indoor gatherings.

But for many, who aren’t deferring to the doctor, holiday season 2021 is all about risk assessment. No one wants a repeat of last year, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings because the COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t generally available. But this year, holidays haven’t been normal either.

Although many are vaccinated and boosted, people are weighing the risks of being in-person with loved ones, whether it’s holiday parties or family dinners. The calculations include pent-up demand to travel and see friends and family against the potential dangers of being around the unvaccinated, including children under 5 who are too young for a shot.

The omicron variant adds another wrinkle in the seemingly never-ending list of decisions that used to be so easy.

“This one is going to be tough,” says Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist from Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s coming at a time of year when people gather to celebrate with family and friends. We know pretty clearly that not gathering with family and friends and foregoing our traditions also has a mental health impact. We’re recognizing that more as the pandemic continues — trying to balance the disease risk for COVID with well-being in decision-making at both the personal level as well as the community level.” 

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COVID makes social decisions difficult

These days there’s so much to ponder. Americans are struggling to make everyday life decisions during this lingering pandemic, according to a survey released this fall from the American Psychological Association, which Bufka helped develop as a senior director with the Washington, D.C.-based group.

deb delacruz vela and her family at christmas

Courtesy Deb Delacruz Vela

Deb Delacruz Vela, center, with family members last Christmas, has concerns about seeing unvaccinated relatives this year.

Among 3,035 adults age 18 and older polled, more than one-third say it has been more stressful to make day-to-day decisions (36 percent) as well as basic life decisions (35 percent) compared to life pre-pandemic. The national Stress in America 2021 survey conducted by Harris Poll also found that 32 percent said coronavirus has them so stressed they have trouble making basic decisions such as what to wear or what to eat.

“Pre-pandemic, most of us had daily routines and some of the decisions were just part of the routine. We didn’t think about it,” says Bufka.

She says perceptions about COVID risk keep changing and that affects “the cognitive load — how much we have to hold in our heads to process the world around us.” 

“Recognizing that, it’s not so surprising that decision-making is more stressful,” she says. “It’s harder to make a decision to do something that has some potential risk to it, even if it has the potential for really good things.”

For Hayley Head and her husband, Tim Glasser, of the Columbus, Ohio, suburb Upper Arlington, the holidays are definitely different from last year.

“We were very cautious,” Glasser, 63, says. “Numbers were going up during the holidays. All our family members understood. We had Thanksgiving dinner at home and did curbside deliveries to our children.”

Head says opening gifts last Christmas took place over Zoom.

“We were alone for Christmas dinner and I sat down and cried,” Head, 58, says. “We missed our family.”

Since then, one son, his wife and 2-year-old daughter moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, for work, but Head says this Christmas, they’ll share the holiday with their other two children and their significant others.

“Human beings, when given the time, are always doing a value exchange, weighing the benefits to them and what they are giving up in return,” psychologist Arathi Sethumadhavan says in an article in the November/December 2021 issue of the magazine APA Monitor on Psychology.

Are you ready to party?

With the pandemic lingering, such judgment calls are different, creating a unique situation, says Baruch Fischhoff, a research psychologist who studies decision-making at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“We have something poorly known and changing,” Fischhoff says of the coronavirus. “This collective experience is unusual.”

Further complicating this holiday season is the return of parties and larger gatherings.

Adam Reeves, 65, and his partner hosted a “tree trimming” party for friends and neighbors at their home in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a Charleston suburb.

adam reeves and a friend at his holiday party

Courtesy Adam Reeves

Party host Adam Reeves, right, with guest Jon Gross, asked invitees to consider risks before they RSVPed.

They mailed out Save The Dates for the Dec. 4 party to make sure everyone knew the particulars and could make their own individual risk assessment.

“I wrote a personal, handwritten note on each one saying there would be quite a large crowd inside and outside and if you’re uncomfortable, please consider before sending your RSVP,” Reeves says.

A high-end restaurant catered the food and a duo played live music, which Reeves says required a “hefty deposit.”

“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t roll this party out, and at the last minute, everyone didn’t freak out and not come,” he says.

A handful canceled that day, Reeves said. But 48 guests congregated inside the home, as well as on the screened-in porch and deck as temperatures hovered in the 60s. Although Reeves’ partner has health issues, the hosts didn’t ask for their guests’ vaccination status since Reeves believes most everyone they know is vaccinated.

That’s what Deb Delacruz Vela, of Austin, Texas, says about the family and friends she sees regularly. But this Christmas, she’s joining extended family in Port Neches, a town in the Beaumont–Port Arthur metro area of southeast Texas.

“For Christmas, I’m seeing my niece and her husband and three kids — two in high school and one of middle-school age and they’re not vaccinated. I have some concerns about that,” says Vela, 66. “I will probably wear a mask when I see them.”

Sharon Jayson is a contributing writer who covers health, family, aging and retirement. As a staff reporter for USA Today, she covered behavior and relationships. She has also written for Kaiser Health News, The Washington Post, Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report.