Is it safe to travel for Christmas?

Holding a mask next to some ornaments as people wonder whether it's safe to travel for Christmas
Photo via Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Travel over Christmas could be busier than it was for Thanksgiving
  • Get tested for COVID-19 before your trip and after you return
  • Stay home and avoid travel if at all possible

The holiday season is officially in full swing, despite the ever-raging pandemic. Numerous families and friend groups were forced to cancel their Thanksgiving plans, heeding warnings from experts to avoid gatherings of any size. Now, people want to know if it’s safe to travel for Christmas or if the COVID-19 pandemic will upend the year’s final Christian holiday. 

Experts warned that the pandemic would worsen in the winter months, and their words are proving true. The U.S. has suffered, as of Dec. 10, more than 15.3 million infections and 289,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Cases have been on a sharp rise for weeks, as many ignore expert advice and make trips to see family members and friends.

This holiday travel is largely responsible for the rise in cases, particularly when paired with the other effects of colder weather. This includes more opportunities for viral spread as people head indoors, particularly when that indoor space is a crowded airport, plane, or bus. 

The CDC, along with other health experts, is advising Americans to avoid travel for Christmas. Officials are fully aware that not everyone will heed this warning, however, and so are advising those people who choose to travel anyway to get a COVID-19 test before embarking and after returning home.

Travelers, in an effort to be as safe as possible during their Christmas trips, should get a test 1-3 days prior to any planned travel. A second test should come 5-7 days following their return home. The CDC also advises any travelers to avoid nonessential activities for at least seven days after returning. 

Testing does not negate the risk of travel, as noted by CDC COVID-19 incident manager Dr. Henry Walke. If everyone who plans to travel gets tested, however, the risk of a massive rise in infections and deaths following Christmas should be lessened. 

Millions of Americans chose to travel for Thanksgiving despite pleas from experts to stay home. The same is likely to happen during Christmas, a holiday that takes precedence in many American households. Thanksgiving travel had a number of ripple effects, as testing sites became overwhelmed by families, people clogged airports, and cases rose sharply in the following weeks. 

As noted by Melissa Nolan, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina, far more people will likely celebrate Christmas than did Thanksgiving. “Christmas is an international holiday—it’s celebrated around the world. So if Thanksgiving is an indicator of how much travel we can expect at Christmas, I think that is very concerning,” she told the Washington Post.

The CDC recommends that people consider adapting to the altered circumstances of Christmas this year. Small gatherings, with only the people in your household, are the safest way to celebrate the holiday in person.

Only those people you live with and come in consistent contact with are considered among this group. Family members in a different city, including college-aged children returning home, should be considered part of a separate household. The CDC also recommends virtual celebrations, which can allow families to talk and connect without the risk of spreading the virus. 

Read more pandemic holiday news:

Sources: USA Today, Washington Post, CDC, CNN, Johns Hopkins

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