Jean Hyde has been a good sport since the start of the pandemic.
She didn’t complain when her adult daughters chalked Mother’s Day wishes on her Woodbury driveway instead of taking her to brunch. She spent solo weekends at the family cabin, painting the porch instead of picnicking with her family. She listened to her 3-year-old grandson “roar like a dinosaur” on FaceTime instead of cuddling him on her lap.
After months of stoic rule-following, Hyde — and her three daughters and their husbands — were yearning to find a way to celebrate Christmas together.
“One of my daughters is pregnant and one of my sons-in-law has an autoimmune disorder. It’s four different households, but I think we found a safe way to do this,” Hyde said. “We all work at home, so we are quarantining for two solid weeks.”
Hyde hasn’t left her house; she canceled a chiropractic appointment, ordered presents online and had the ingredients for the cheesy potatoes and roasted vegetables that were her Christmas dinner contributions delivered.
“We’re doing everything within our power to make it as risk-free as possible. They took my grandson out of day care,” she said. “We don’t want to give up Christmas so we are giving up two weeks of our time.”
State Health Department officials continue to plead with Minnesotans to limit gatherings to the people in their household. But in the days leading up to Christmas, some who hunger for time with relatives are striking deals with family members to hole up in their individual homes.
These Christmas pacts mean eliminating even quick trips to supermarkets and shopping malls, no parks and playgrounds for kids, to the dentist or holiday haircuts at the salon. Those who are taking part are strategically self-quarantining to try to eliminate every possible exposure to the virus and to avoid carrying it to their loved ones.
Public health experts, however, discourage such plans.
“A month ago, I would have said you could get away with it if you’re really careful, but everything with COVID changes. Now I just don’t advise it,” said Dr. Jill Foster, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a pediatric infectious diseases physician with M Health Fairview.
“Families go into this with a goal and good intentions, but I have come to believe that as many people cheat on quarantine as cheat on diets — which is everyone,” she said. “This is the Christmas to hunker down with those you live with.”
Merry little Christmas
Heather and Paul Polivka are fairly confident about their plans to voluntarily quarantine before Christmas Eve because they have experience with the process.
The Richfield couple isolated for two weeks before Thanksgiving so that they could share their turkey dinner with Paul’s 84-year-old widowed mother and Heather’s mom and stepfather, all of whom had also isolated.
Now they’re planning a merry little Christmas with the same cast of characters, scaling down from the usual extended crowd of siblings, in-laws and grandchildren.
“Paul and I have people in our families who have a different risk tolerance than we do and it’s best not to meet up with them right now,” said Heather.
“His mom is in the age group that is susceptible and she has taken great pains to stay safe. We are honored to quarantine so she won’t be alone. My mother and stepdad are younger, but they’re glad to do the same. We’re looking forward to another lovely time with just the five of us.”
While federal and state guidelines on the length of time needed to isolate after a COVID-19 exposure has been trimmed from 14 days to 10, the Polivkas have decided to err on the side of caution. Even without an exposure, they will hunker down for the full two weeks.
Heather said her family is “lucky” to be able to isolate. She is a consultant and her husband is a technical writer so both work remotely. Their parents are retired and they can afford to have necessities delivered.
But she also suspects a certain degree of luck will be required for them to successfully pull off the quarantine.
“We can make the best-laid plans but something could come up out of the blue that changes it and exposes one of us,” she said.
Doing it anyway
While stipulating that it’s a bad idea for families to break their household bubble, Foster, the infectious disease specialist, suspects the temptation of tradition will lead even some who have been conscientious to gather.
“We are just socialized to break bread together at the holidays,” she said.
In order to make an ad hoc family honor system as safe as possible, she recommends that everyone take an ironclad pledge to self-report if their isolation bubble gets inadvertently punctured, even by minimal contact with someone from outside their households.
“You have to trust each other to follow the rules, but you also have to trust each other to confess if you don’t. If the neighbor came over while you were putting out the trash, you have to be ready to say you’re out,” she said.
Foster also warned participants that they must opt out if they show any signs of illness.
“You should make a pact that if someone wakes up on the day they’re getting together and they have the sniffles or a cough, they will bail. They can’t say, ‘It’s just a runny nose,’ they have to cancel.”
Foster recommended that every family member who plans to attend a gathering get tested ahead of time. And she stressed that someone who has isolated for two weeks, then flew to be with family, has erased any of the benefits achieved by quarantining.
She also urged all attendees to stay masked and socially distanced during the festivities and that the time together be limited.
“If someone is asymptomatic and has the virus, the longer the others are exposed to them, the more likely it is that they will get sick,” she said.
There’s one tradition that should be iced in 2020. Foster gives a hearty “Bah, humbug!” to gathering the whole gang around the piano to sing Christmas carols.
“Starting early in the pandemic, we saw outbreaks in choirs. There’s something about singing, the way people breathe and project their voice, that just spews more virus in the air,” she said. “Don’t do it.”
Jean Hyde hopes that her family’s strict quarantining leading up to their celebration will keep them safe.
“It hasn’t been that tough to give up my social life because my friends are lying low,” she said. But she admits she hasn’t had an easy time of it.
“I live by myself. My dog died this summer so I don’t even have his company,” she said. “I can’t speak for the others, but for me, Christmas together will mean more this year.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.