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Staying safe from COVID-19 this holiday season

Brian Hartl, and epidemiologist with Kent County Health Department said the upcoming fall and winter holidays have been a concern.

GRAND RAPIDS CHARTER TOWNSHIP, Mich — Holidays are a great time of year to get together with friends and family, but with COVID-19 cases peaking in Michigan, festivities will look different from years past.

Health experts are asking for indoor gatherings to be limited to 10 people or less and are encouraging the use of masks and social distancing.

Brian Hartl, and epidemiologist with Kent County Health Department said the upcoming fall and winter holidays have been a concern.

"Anytime we bring people together there’s concern on our part for the spread of COVID-19," Hartl said, "Michigan weather does not often cooperate. That limits us to indoor gatherings…Anytime when people are in an indoor space that does not have good ventilation there is higher risk."

13 ON YOUR SIDE sat down with Hartl to talk about the different ways families can mitigate risk while still having a small gathering:


Holidays offer an opportunity for loved ones of all ages and backgrounds to get together, but Hartl said some could be more at risk than others. He recommends noting who on the guest list is most at risk, such as older adults or people with medical conditions.

Hartl said it may be best for those people to quarantine rather than attend a gathering, but if they do come to make sure there are adequate safety precautions to protect them, such as masking up, distancing and sanitary procedures.

It's also important to know where guests are coming from. Holidays are among the busiest times for airports, and while some states COVID-19 case numbers may be down, others are hotspots for the virus, which could post a higher risk.

"It's important for people to pay attention to local activity and activity in places people may be coming from," Hartl said.


With less ventilation indoors, Hartl said its important to make sure hosts have enough space to throw an event. 

According to CDC guidelines, people should keep at least six feet of distance between them and others who are not apart of their household to prevent contracting COVID-19.

Hartl said an easy way to do this is spread out tables throughout the house, pairing each household at one table.


During the holidays, it's common for people to enjoy meals "family" or "buffet" style, sharing utensils, dishes and more, but that could make it easier for germs to spread. 

"During COVID-19 those aren’t the best way to serve meals. Designating one person to maybe plate the meals for everyone as opposed to having buffet style where a lot of people are touching the utensils," Hartl explained.

He also suggested cutting out any sharable bowls of candy or family-sized bags of chips, as more hands in means more germs. Hosts can work around this by purchasing individualized chips or snack bags to pass out.

Hartl also suggested families bring their own food when they can, but acknowledged that may be difficult during the holidays.

"Any time you can bring your own drinks, your own food, that’s the better practice, but obviously with Thanksgiving we’re not used to having our meal in a traveling container," he explained.


Hosts can still make the beautiful and delicious holiday cocktails to share, but Hartl said be mindful about how many you consume. 

"It reduces our judgement we might do things that we otherwise wouldn’t do," He said, explaining that acts like social distancing and keeping masks on may be easy to forget when inebriated. 


Hartl said above all else, it's imperative that people wear their masks, saying it's one of the number one ways to protect oneself and others from COVID-19.

"That’s the biggest thing, and we know the effectiveness of it terms of limiting the spread of droplets from people who are speaking or talking or coughing," Hartl said.

Families can have a little fun by getting matching or festive masks or having a best/worst mask contest, so long as safety takes priority over style.


With cold and flu season ramping up, Hartl said it's more important than ever to practice precaution when people are feeling under the weather. He advises anyone experiencing abnormal symptoms or even seasonal allergies to get tested for COVID-19 before taking part in any gatherings.

"You cannot distinguish you know allergies from flu virus, from Coronavirus. You have no idea until you're tested…right now seek testing, wait to get together with other people until you get those test results back," he said.


Colleges like Grand Valley State University are asking students to self-quarantine as much as possible before embarking on Thanksgiving break, and Hartl said it would be a good idea for community members to follow suit.

"Avoiding contact with others, if you do intend to get together with a larger group of people to take precautions the few weeks before and really limit the contact you have with people outside of your home to really reduce your chances of becoming infected with COVID-19," he said.

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If community members feel like they may be coming down with something or can't invite everyone they want to a gathering, Hartl said one of the safest things to do is take a gathering online.

RELATED: Whitmer encourages Michigan to prep for winter this week

Conference programs like Google Hangouts and Zoom offer free ways for friends, families, colleagues and more to connect online.


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