Is It Safe to Go to a Holiday Party?

’Tis the season for large family get-togethers. Just how risky is breaking out of your bubble for a night of festivities?

If the calls haven’t come in yet, they’re going to soon. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins all want to know: Are we getting together for the holidays? If your plans are still up in the air, you may feel pulled in different directions by pandemic fear and the desire (or obligation) to see family.

There is no way around the fact that the risk of going to see family or friends this holiday season is high. “I wish I could say that the risk is low,” says Sandra Albrecht, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the chief epidemiologist of the COVID-19 communication campaign Dear Pandemic. “Unfortunately, these gatherings around the holidays are likely to be environments where transmission may very well be high.” Most of the country will be facing cold weather during the winter holidays, so people will celebrate inside where transmission is more likely. Celebrations often involve food and drink, which means time spent with masks off. There are even more dangers if you have to travel to get to the party, especially if community transmission levels are high either where you’re starting or where you’re going.

But not seeing anyone can come with its own set of problems including loneliness, depression, and more of the same for overworked parents. Besides, in some places the COVID risks are less high and the risk of small, masked gatherings might not outweigh the benefits of seeing other people. Time to map it out.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the Holiday Party Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the choices you’re assessing — in this case, attending a large holiday party, a small holiday party, or staying home. Then, identify the factors that go into making those choices. The factors we will consider are public health, psychology, economics, and the benefits of play.

A risk matrix compares the severity of the potential consequences of a factor (from 0 to 5, or insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of a choice such as going to a holiday party.

For each choice, the four factors can fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can make the choice without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a factor falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different choices have different mixes of red, yellow, and green factors. No choice is perfect, but the “total score” for each choice can help you get a sense of the risk associated with it. That score is calculated by multiplying the severity of a factor’s consequences (0 to 5) by the likelihood of those consequences occurring, with Very Unlikely being 1 and Very Likely being 4. The higher the total score, the riskier the choice is.

The Four Factors

If you put the decision to go to a holiday party on a risk matrix, there are four factors to assess.

  • Public health: The risk the action has on public health.

    • For example, going to a large family dinner indoors without testing or quarantining could lead to many coronavirus infections. There’s a reason cases spiked after Memorial Day and Labor Day.

  • Psychology: The risk the action has on your and your child’s psychology.

    • For example, if you’re extremely worried about your family’s health, your kid can pick up on that and be anxious too.

  • Economics: The risk the action has on your family’s finances.

    • For example, if you’re not seeing extended family in person over the winter holidays, you may not have to buy them all gifts. Conversely, family and friends might chip in and offset some gift costs (this depends on the family and friends, of course).

  • Play: The risk the action has on your child’s experiences with play.

    • For example, goofing off with family members at a holiday party can bring kids joy at a time when they aren’t getting normal amounts of play.

The Three Scenarios

Large Holiday Party

Total Score = 23

  • Large holiday parties pose a big public health risk during a pandemic, especially during the doubly whammy of flu season.

  • Don’t go to a large holiday party if your community or the community you’re traveling to has high or medium COVID-19 transmission rates. As of today, the 7th of December, low-risk communities are hard to come by in the U.S.

  • To minimize the public health and psychology (worry) risk of spreading the coronavirus, party-goers should stay home as much as possible for two weeks before and after the party. If they can, they should also get tested before the party.

Small Holiday Party

Total Score = 14

  • Small holiday parties are less of a public health risk because there’s less chance of transmission. The amount you worry about your health may also be lower.

  • Getting together with a small group can spark sorely needed joy.

  • Local parties are safer, and they also cost less to travel to.

Stay Home

Total Score = 9

  • If anyone in your household is at risk for severe COVID-19, celebrating the holidays alone is best for both personal and public health.

  • Staying home over the holidays is probably going to be a bit sad for both you and your kids. Make sure you have stay-at-home plans to make up for the loss.

The Bottom Line:

When we mapped these three scenarios, going to a large holiday had the highest risk score at 23. The next highest score was for going to a small party, and it was significantly lower at 14. The lowest score was 9 for staying home because although skipping out on holiday get-togethers is sad, it’s probably best for public health, anxiety, and your wallet. However, every family is in a unique situation, so the total scores listed above won’t perfectly reflect the risk of each choice for you.

To get a risk matrix for your own family, think about a potential consequence, for example, travel expenses for the “economic” factor. If you would need to travel across the country to get to the family party, this consequence is probably “Likely” and may have a severity of “2” or “3.” Repeat this analysis for each factor and for each scenario.

For public health, it’s important to keep in mind that depending on where you live, your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19 is probably “Very Unlikely” or “Unlikely.” This tool can tell you how likely it is that someone at your party will have COVID-19 depending on your county and your party size. The more people at your party and the more those people socialize the two weeks following it, the larger an outbreak you could cause and the higher your severity score.

Making the Decision

Now that you have a better sense of the risks, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether you in particular should attend a holiday party. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.

Safety Tips for Small Gatherings

Take these steps to reduce the COVID-19 risk while partying.

COVID-19 Safety Tips for the Holidays:

  • Ask the other party-goers to stay home as much as possible for two weeks before the party.

  • Set ground rules ahead of time. Will you hug? Keep masks on except for dinner?

  • If you live in a warmer part of the country, take the party outside.

  • Open windows for better ventilation.

  • Wear masks whenever possible and social distance.

  • Use a proper air purifier.

  • Eat in the room with the best ventilation.

  • Stagger eating times so that only members of a household eat together.

  • Don’t sing or cheer.

  • Invite as few people as possible.

  • Keep it short and sweet.

  • Get your flu vaccine before.