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Should masks be worn at family gatherings? How the holidays may look different

Should masks be warn at family gatherings? How the holidays may look different
Posted at 7:30 PM, Aug 07, 2020

For most Americans, wearing a mask in public has become part of the daily routine, and in most states, they’re required in indoor spaces.

Even though interactions in public settings might be brief, public health experts have recommended wearing masks outside of the household.

But what about family gatherings? Should you wear a mask when visiting relatives? Should you even see relatives outside of your household during a pandemic?

If you ask Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, he is opting not to see extended relatives amid the pandemic. And looking forward to the holiday season, Murray does not plan on seeing extended relatives.

“Personally, in our family, we will not have our family get together,” Murrays said about Thanksgiving. “I am particularly cautious. That would be our strategy. Certainly, we have avoided, on a personal level, we have avoided any indoor exposure to friends or family and have restricted any exposure at all to outdoor interaction where we can maintain 6 feet or more.”

On Thursday, Murray’s organization released new projections that indicated that near universal wearing of face coverings outside of the home would save 67,000 American lives.

“If you have a gathering of other family members that are not in your household, then yes, you should be wearing a mask or at least eating outdoors and distancing, which becomes very, very difficult in the winter, Murray said.

As part of Murray’s projections, an estimated 1,500 Americans will die per day from coronavirus-related illnesses in November with those numbers continuing to rise into the Thanksgiving holiday. But, those figures drops significantly if masks are worn outside of the home.

Unlike Murray, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, he takes a different approach around family. He said on the topic of wearing masks or avoiding interactions with extended family members, it depends on a person’s risk tolerance.

“I am very risk tolerant,” Adalja said. “I am an infectious disease physician. I have taken care of people with the coronavirus. Both of my parents are physicians. I don’t take any special precautious with my parents. I don’t think they take any special precautious with me.

“I think physicians might be risk tolerant, but I have not changed my behaviors with people I see regularly, other than if they’re telling me they have a fever, and then I might say ‘stay away’ because I don’t want to be quarantined and not be able to work.”

Adalja agrees with Murray, however, that the more people that are involved in gatherings, the higher the risk. He said there is no right or wrong answer when deciding on attending an event with family.

“When you make decisions on attending things, you have to make a risk calculation based on the fact that this virus is in the community, and that it’s likely to be at any activity with a sizeable number of people,” Adalja said.

Adalja agrees, however, that there is a risk in attending family gatherings, and while face coverings are effective, they're not a panacea.

While the CDC doesn’t explicitly discourage family gatherings, the organization has issued guidance on family gatherings. The guidelines include holding events outside when possible, keep seating and people six feet apart, and mask wearing when six feet of stance is not possible. The guidance even goes so far to recommend encouraging guests to bring their own silverware.