The Family Reunion Planner
For many families, this year will be the first time relatives meet in person for a reunion since the coronavirus pandemic triggered lockdowns and travel restrictions. Anticipation is high.
Although some families went virtual with their reunions, using Zoom and other online platforms that emerged during the pandemic, there’s no substitute for being able to give your grandmother a real hug.
Still, the pandemic is far from over, and highly contagious COVID-19 variants have caused a recent surge in virus cases and hospitalizations across the country.
So how should people approach sensitive issues surrounding in-person reunions, whether small or large — such as whether to require vaccinations, masks and negative test results — without causing a family feud?
Talking about masking and vaccinations
If families want attendees to be vaccinated or wear masks, they should request that from the start in a nonauthoritative way, and then people can choose to attend or not, says Sandra Calzadilla, a licensed mental health counselor who works for the online therapy platform Choosing Therapy. She suggests some sample language: “This may not fall into line with your beliefs, but we want to make sure this is a safe event for everyone. If you’re not able to attend due to our requirements, we will be streaming the event.”
If people balk at attendance requirements or accuse planners of promoting government conspiracies, reiterate your reasons for concern, Calzadilla says. “Say, ‘We love you all and we want to see you, but we want to make sure 50 people don’t get sick. It’s for the safety of the babies, the grandmas and grandpas. This is not political; this is about health.’ ”
This summer, about 30 female cousins in the Groshek family will gather for an in-person reunion — dubbed Chickfest 2022 — on the ancestral farm in central Wisconsin.
“It’s fairly informal,” says June Groshek Czarnezki, 59, of Milwaukee, who helped plan the event. “We pretty much get together and bring food. If it’s nice, we sit in the yard and we just talk.”
They didn’t discuss it much, but they’re not requiring masks, proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results to attend, she says.
“We’re not really rigid,” Czarnezki says. “Offhand we kind of know who’s vaccinated — most of them are. If people are really concerned, they just don’t come. If someone wants to wear a mask, no one is going to say no. It’s courtesy.”
Experts say it helps to be as transparent as possible in the planning stages. Before the event, send a poll to family members to get a feel for what people want.
“People don’t want to RSVP to an event and then find out they have to take these other steps,” Calzadilla says. “List your expectations at the beginning, and people can decide what they are willing and not willing to do.”
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Other COVID considerations
The lingering virus combined with concern for vulnerable relatives may convince some families to continue with a virtual format or simply postpone their reunion for another year. Others have embraced a new hybrid model, where some individuals gather in person and some Zoom in, experts say.
While those planning to gather in person want their reunion to be a joyous occasion, they also want to protect their relatives from getting sick. That can be a tall order for an event that typically spans a three-day weekend and includes 50 attendees — and some reunions are much larger.
“Folks are looking for advice on how to [gather] most easily and responsibly,” says Tarquin Collis, M.D., chief of infectious disease at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii. “There are some risks and downsides when folks who are vulnerable get together when COVID is still with us.”
Here are four things to consider for in-person family reunions.
The setting: Collis encourages families to gather outdoors when possible. If the reunion is indoors, make sure the venue has good ventilation. Consider a place with high ceilings to help airflow, and open the windows. “The setting is maybe the biggest thing people can control,” he says. “It’s always about making good decisions and being conscious of trying to limit risk with finding venues that are fun and enjoyable and making relationships — thinking about what you can control and what’s an acceptable level of risk without being a total party pooper.”
The size: Families may want to opt for smaller gatherings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that high-risk people avoid crowded places and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
Vaccinations: Families should encourage relatives to stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations and ask their doctor if they should get a booster shot, Collis advises. The CDC considers travelers to be up to date on their COVID vaccines if they have received all doses in the primary series plus one booster, which it says reduces the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Those over 50 or at high risk may also want to get a second booster shot.
Testing: The CDC recommends that people traveling within the United States get a COVID test no more than three days before their departure. Reunion planners may require that attendees take a rapid antigen test the day of the event to increase the level of safety and give everyone peace of mind. Rapid home test kits are widely available, but it might also be a good idea to pack one in your luggage. Many community sites nationwide provide free testing, or you can order free tests from the federal government online or by calling 800-232-0233. In some places you can pick up test kits for free at pharmacies and other retail locations. Some insurance companies will provide reimbursement for out-of-pocket costs related to purchasing tests.
Face masks: Many people are leaving their masks at home as mandates disappear, but the CDC still recommends that anyone over the age of 2 wear a mask while using public transportation or travel hubs like airports to protect themselves and the people around them. Collis encourages people to continue wearing masks — he recommends an N95, KN95 or KF94 — if they’re medically vulnerable or even if it just makes them feel more comfortable.
Johanna Roark, 66, says her extended family decided to skip an in-person reunion this year and instead hold its third virtual reunion. They hope to celebrate their 65th family reunion in person next fall.
“COVID was going to be more of a management issue,” says Roark, who is one of the reunion planners. “It gets complicated when you have people coming from different states. It gets controversial.”
Still, Roark looks forward to getting together in person again. “You can’t replicate a face-to-face reunion on a virtual platform.”
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association’s website.