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The holidays aren’t canceled. We have to reimagine them for the pandemic era

An outdoor table setting for two.
Holiday gatherings need to be reimagined during a pandemic.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the fact that holiday gatherings have been putting the fun in dysfunction for decades, telling folks not to gather due to COVID-19 precautions is bound to ruffle a few turkey feathers.

After eight months and counting, our inability to participate in rituals both happy and sad is likely to make many of us yearn for turkey and trimmings, dreidels and latkes, tamales and pozole — with family and friends.

But the pandemic is still very much with us, which is why the California Department of Public Health and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health recently released mandatory guidelines for safely celebrating the most social time of the year.

The main tenets include gathering with no more than three separate households (including the hosts themselves) in an outside, socially distanced space for a recommended two-hour time period. Handwashing and mask wearing (when not eating or drinking) is a given. Buffet setups, passed plates and punch bowls should be avoided, and single-use disposable containers and utensils are preferred.

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Best practices are defined as socializing only with your immediate household, or “quarantine pod” (the people you interact with on a regular basis); organizing virtual events; and staying home if you feel sick or are in a high-risk group for COVID-19.

The good news?

“The holidays are not canceled,” said Kabrel Geller, a Los Angeles-based caterer who saw her business nosedive last spring.

They just need to be reimagined.

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Inviting expectations

“If anything, this pandemic has made us even more conscious of the importance and need that we all have to gather,” said Frances Schultz, an author and lifestyle expert based in Los Olivos, Calif. “Part of what it means to be human is to live in community.”

“It’s a good idea if everybody is tested before they come,” Schultz said, adding, “and when we have [extended] family or other people in the house not eating or drinking, we should wear masks.”

Of course, there are as many opinions on COVID precautions as there are stuffing recipes. To avoid awkward exchanges, the consensus is that hosts should communicate up-front about their expectations for safety precautions and allow guests to determine their own level of comfort with what is planned. Are air hugs on the menu? How many tables? How many people? If you’re meeting up at the park, have you scouted the space and checked municipal regulations?

“Clear is kind,” said Joy Cho, a Los Angeles-based designer and founder of the Oh Joy! website, who said she has heard from many of her 442,000-plus Instagram followers about the frustration and anxiety that occur when expectations around guidelines for gathering don’t match up and feelings get hurt.

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Take it outside

Outdoor table settings
Practicing social distancing is a must. If possible, take your holiday get-together outdoors.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As Southern Californians, we have been in training for an outdoor holiday season since the first time we fired up a grill or packed a picnic on a winter day.

Even alfresco, however, practicing social distancing is a must, and for that experts recommend setting up “bubbles” for each household. In a backyard, that means using tables spaced at least six feet apart.

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“Use what you have,” said event planner and tableware designer Ryan Larson of Burbank-based Tin Parade, “We don’t need to get fancy and rent a bunch of furniture. ... Use the weird, ugly outdoor table on the side of the house. It’s OK, it’s going to have a tablecloth on it. Pull out that small table from the guest room.”

If you want to have a “unified” vibe, use matching table coverings. For a recent party, Larson used white tablecloths, “and when we ran out of those, we just used white fabric.” (And don’t forget to use chairs that can be washed or wiped down with Lysol or sanitizing wipes.)

Now is also the time to round up outdoor canopies, umbrellas, ice chests, beverage tubs, string lights, fire pits and heat lamps — if you can find them.

According to online retailer Wayfair.com, orders for patio heat lamps — along with all products in the outdoor heating and grilling category — more than doubled in early fall compared with the same time last year. A quick search of HomeDepot.com in late October indicated that most of the retailer’s patio heat lamps are already out of stock online. The company has instituted a new limit of two heaters per customer (in store and online) as merchandise becomes available.

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Offering guests an assortment of blankets or wraps is another way to chase away the chill. Or ask them to bring their own.

Parks, beaches and BYO picnics

For many, the absence of outdoor space and restrictions on indoor gathering means heading to the local beach or park. If this is the plan, it’s important to note that the same guidelines for socializing apply: Groups should be limited to three household or quarantine “bubbles.” Merging with other holiday gatherings (intentionally or not) should be avoided.

“The group that you came with is the group that you stay with,” said Anissa Davis, health officer for the city of Long Beach.

Gear such as canopies, tents and awnings should have at least three open sides, Davis said. “You shouldn’t be inside an enclosed tent or anything like that,” and picnics should avoid self-serve, buffet-style presentations. Focusing on prepackaged, individual servings or one picnic spread per household reduces contact with others.

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Rose Watson, public information director for the city of L.A.'s Department of Recreation and Parks, said, “It’s going to look very different this year.

“If you do have a backyard,” said Watson, “try to do your event at home, but if you do go to a beach or park, please try to do so safely.” Reservations for large parties and permits for things like bouncers and taco trucks at city and county parks are not available, she said.

Wearing masks, social distancing, getting a flu shot, providing opportunities for washing or sanitizing hands, avoiding public bathrooms at peak usage times (when possible) and socializing for two hours instead of four or six are all aimed at keeping family and friends healthy.

“I know it’s repetitive and people get tired of hearing it,” said Watson. “So when people call my office to vent, ‘I say, I get it, we’re all in the same boat. You’re not alone.’”

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Guidelines for specific local beaches and parks can be found at Beaches.LACounty.gov, or by checking your city’s parks and recreation department website online.

The airline industry is promoting new studies that suggest the risk of contracting COVID-19 while flying is low. Let’s take a closer look at the assertions.

Setting the mood

A holiday table setting
Things found in nature like fallen tree branches, squashes and pumpkins add seasonal flair to to your holiday table setting.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

If you do plan on setting up the portable tables in the backyard, courtyard or driveway, design and entertaining experts have ideas for cranking up the style without breaking the bank.

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Larson recommends thinking in terms of vignettes. “Having a cluster of things together is easier than having a lot of decor spread out. You don’t totally feel that,” she said. Try an arrangement of candles and pumpkins or leaves or gourds — on the steps or near the front door.

Los Angeles interior designer and lifestyle expert Breegan Jane suggests using things found in nature, such as fallen tree branches, squashes and pumpkins.

For Geller, founder of This Messy Table L.A., it’s about incorporating personal items. “When people ask about creating their own tables, I tell them to look around the house, go into the yard. What do they have?

“If you have six or seven candles hanging around, make a vignette out of the candles. Look around your home when you are setting any kind of table — you might see things in a different way that you could use to make it more interesting and eclectic and you.”

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Those salt-and-pepper shakers you picked up on a trip to Solvang or the turkey-shaped gravy boat your sister gave you as a joke can add color and personality when arranged amid leafy branches from a lemon or eucalyptus tree. Bonus points for finding fall-colored leaves in Los Angeles.

Don’t pass the peas, please

Pandemic protocol for gatherings puts an emphasis on reducing communal contact and touching of shared surfaces. In practical terms, that means choosing single-use, disposable tableware and plating individual meals instead of serving family-style.

On the upside, there will be fewer dishes to wash. The downside? A disappointing break with tradition and the potential for frustrating waste.

Despite the suggested restrictions, there are tabletop options that address the trifecta of safety, style and budget.

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If you’re feeling flush, online rental service Hestia Harlow delivers fine dining tableware and curated tabletop decor to your door. Hosts need only rinse the plates and utensils before repacking them (unwashed) into their sustainable packaging for pickup the next day.

Larson created a portable three-sided acrylic tabletop shield, or “sneeze guard,” that can be placed in front of each diner for what the designer calls “one more layer of protection,” and they can be repurposed for school or work. Acrylic sheets and plexiglass shields also can be purchased from home improvement stores.

Options for disposable dinnerware have gone decidedly upscale in recent years, with companies such as Celebrated.com, MeriMeri.com, PoshPartySupplies.com, APartySource.com and Party City offering stylish paper plates and plastic utensils that can be delivered.

If you do end up going with utensils and freshly washed plates from your own kitchen cupboards, clean up safely with dishwashing gloves and keep nonhousehold would-be helpers out of the kitchen.

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A few thoughts about alcohol (not the kind in your hand sanitizer)

Hand sanitizer on a table
Hand sanitizer is a must for your holiday gathering, but when it comes to alcohol to imbibe, take it easy.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Alcohol may help with your dance moves, but it doesn’t help with social distancing at a gathering. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, critical decision-making skills are diminished before a person shows obvious signs of overindulging.

Bottom line, this is probably not the year for tapping a keg and throwing caution to the wind.

Consider crafting mocktails (nonalcoholic cocktails) or offering wine spritzers or spiked ciders instead. If you do serve wine and beer, the National Institutes of Health suggests also offering a variety of nonalcoholic drinks like waters, sparkling juices and sodas to counteract the dehydrating effects and slow the rate of alcohol absorbed into the body. (And don’t forget, nonalcoholic options may be easier on the budget.)

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Zoom and be merry

For families and friends who won’t be able to meet up in person this year, free online video chats offer the possibility of connection.

Jane said she used the format for Mother’s Day last spring and was able to facilitate a successful family event for her kids and relatives.

“We found that putting one person in charge of the agenda and leading the call worked really well for us,” said Jane, adding that it gave everyone a chance to shine.

“When you have a family event, there is some structure to it. So if you have somebody in charge of, OK, now Cousin Jimmy wants to show his new Lego set, and then the girls would like to play the piano, it can make it a better time for those who [aren’t used to] Zoom and don’t know where to focus their attention.”

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In addition, Jane said, “Cooking competitions via Zoom are fun and can be really comical because you have to taste your own dish and judge it live on video.”

Bringing your laptops, tablets and smartphones into the kitchen and syncing up the annual cookie- and pie-baking sessions via video is another way to share in the holiday spirit.

Kathryn Miles, the executive director for Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Long Beach, said she has been Zooming with family and friends throughout the pandemic. “Recognizing that it’s not the same as in person,” said Miles, “it’s 100% better than not at all.”

On the upside, friends living in other states and countries can be included.

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Last Easter, Miles said her mom baked a coffee cake from a family recipe and dropped it off so they could share the tradition during a video chat. They’re planning to play games and conduct a scavenger hunt over the holidays via a video call for the kids.

Another idea? “Ask people to bring an item to the Thanksgiving video chat that represents what they are thankful for this year,” suggested Miles. “It’s almost like an ice breaker — not that you need that with your family, but online is different and not everybody is comfortable with that. I think the small talk you have in person is harder online.”

Miles also recommends knowing your limits. “Zoom fatigue is real, especially around the holidays,” she said. “Know your personal limitations in terms of how long you want to be on Zoom, or how many Zoom calls you want to do in a day, and plan accordingly.”

FOMO, the COVID-holiday version

However you decide to celebrate the season, take a minute to think before posting those photos on social media.

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In an era of increased isolation due to safer-at-home restrictions and health concerns, scrolling through images of gatherings may increase feelings of loneliness for those who could not attend or were not invited to join (or are concerned that guidelines might be hard to follow at a holiday celebration).

“I think of social media as a place to be a positive influence,” said designer Cho. “I don’t think that anybody goes on social media to be a negative influence.

“If you know that you’re setting a great example, show it off,” said Cho. “It’s like voting; everyone should be doing it, but if you’re not sure … then you don’t have to share it.”

Grace in a vortex

In a regular nonpandemic, nonelection year, the holidays can be a stress-inducing whirlwind all on their own. In comparison, if 2020 were a weather pattern it would be something akin to thundersnow meeting a polar vortex. And yet there are moments when gratitude and hope are possible. And there are opportunities to help others.

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Although the traditional formats of charitable food, toy and supply drives may be different this year, the need is greater.

You can help others (or receive help) through nonprofits such as the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, ABC7s Spark of Love Toy Drive and Baby2Baby. Food banks are another way to give back (see accompanying story) and discover some of that holiday spirit you may be missing.


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