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Hey Eater SF,
Is it safe to plan indoor celebrations with all my friends and family this holiday season? And if I do, are there any precautions I should take like requiring negative COVID tests from guests or wearing masks? Do I need to brace myself for the possibility of having to cancel events because of COVID-19?
Cautious About Celebrating
Hey Cautious About Celebrating,
Totally makes sense that after the last two holiday seasons you’d be hesitant to plan big, indoor get-togethers with family and friends. It’s been a rough couple of years spent apart or outside or together — but maybe feel guilty and nervous about it. And even though COVID cases in San Francisco are low as of early November, the reality is that situation could change by the time Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas roll around.
But there’s good news: None of that necessarily means you need to hold back on holiday celebrations this year. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, says Bay Area residents should keep an eye on two things as they make plans this holiday season: first, the amount of virus circulating in the community — “In other words, what’s the weather report?” he says — and second, the company you plan to keep.
If you expect to be around elderly, unvaccinated, or otherwise immunocompromised people, you may want to take additional precautions like wearing masks or dining outdoors. One thing to keep in mind is that unlike in years past, when most people shared the same level of protection against the virus, these days there’s wide variability. Some people will be fully vaccinated and might have received as many as two boosters — while others may not be and could be managing concerns around not just COVID, but also flu and RSV. That means it’s more important than ever for each person to make an individual calculation about what level of risk makes sense.
As for the weather report analogy, Chin-Hong says when the weather looks sunny (as in, there are low levels of community spread and COVID cases) people should feel relatively safe getting together to eat and drink, even indoors. But if it starts to look like there’s a storm coming (as in, COVID cases start to rise) then it would be a good idea to be more conservative. Celebrating with a smaller group, masking up, and moving outside or otherwise increasing ventilation all serve as extra layers of protection, like bringing an umbrella or putting on a rain jacket, just in case. In any weather, however, Chin-Hong says he thinks this year will be very different from the last two. “At the end of the day, we’re in a very different time than last year or two years ago,” Chin-Hong says. “That’s why I think getting together with people is probably more important than being afraid and staying home and not having an event.”
Even if cases do start to increase as the holiday season gets into full swing, Chin-Hong says we shouldn’t be as concerned because there are therapies available including antiviral drugs such as Veklury (remdesivir). “We won’t see as many people get seriously ill, at least in the Bay Area compared to the last three years because we’ve had so many waves of exposure, and people generally have gotten some sort of immunity protection, at least with your average person,” Dr. Chin-Hong says. If you want to keep an eye on things, he suggests looking at the Centers for Disease Control Community Level map; if the county level remains green, you should feel ok moving forward with plans, but if the community level moves into the yellow or red range, it’s a sign you may want to take extra precautions.
To be clear: the chance that your plans could get disrupted by someone getting COVID remains. Chin-Hong says people who get infected this holiday season might have mild symptoms but would still need to stay home for five days. It’s also worth noting that he says those who get the flu could have worse symptoms — “your average person will feel very crummy like a dump truck hit you,” he cautions — so it may be worth getting the flu shot if you haven’t, and have a plan for acquiring a dose of Tamiflu if you do get sick.
But mostly, Chin-Hong says this year should be far more normal than both 2020 and 2021. He’s not currently wearing a mask in most indoor settings like restaurants and bars but says it’s all about being aware of our individual levels of immunity and risk. “I think people are fed up and tired, but we’ve achieved a lot and people shouldn't be canceling things,” he says. “I think this should be the year of people getting together and re-engaging with the world we lost the last two and a half years.”