An Infectious Disease Expert Explains Why New Year's Eve Traditions Are Especially Risky

Zee Krstic
·9-min read
Photo credit: Carol Yepes - Getty Images
Photo credit: Carol Yepes - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

The year is finally drawing to a close — and 2020, of course, was extremely challenging for all across the globe in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. This year, we got a crash course in living through our routines remotely, scrubbing our hands clean, practicing social distancing with loved ones, and coming up with new traditions for Halloween and Thanksgiving. And unfortunately, as we get ready to ring in 2021, the spread of COVID-19 here in the United States has never been more viral. It took 3 months for the U.S. to reach 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases by late April — and yet, 15 million infected swelled to 16 million Americans impacted by the disease in under a week's time this December, USA Today reports. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis, is simply spreading faster in the U.S. than it ever has before.

With the arrival of a few approved vaccines, many are feeling hopeful about getting back to a sense of normalcy. But we're not there yet. As she works with teams to roll out vaccinations to patients, Shruti Gohil, M.D., a medical director as well as a professor within the University of California Irvine's Health System, wishes that the likelihood of COVID-19 spread associated with parties was somehow lower. But the data is increasingly clear: Indoor parties aren't safe. "This virus doesn't have any opinions, it doesn't care if you're gathering for a holiday," Dr. Gohil says. "All it's looking for are pathways to spread itself."

Traditional New Year's Eve celebrations can be a prime breeding ground for COVID-19 for a few reasons. The most pressing concern, given that COVID-19 is currently known to primarily spread through infectious airborne respiratory droplets and aerosols, is that nearly all New Year's Eve parties take place inside. Mounting evidence suggests that poor ventilation in interior spaces leads to the spread of the disease, despite social distancing and sanitization efforts. A new report published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science this month suggests that diners in a restaurant contracted COVID-19 from a single out-of-town visitor only after 5 minutes of exposure — and in some cases, as far as 20 feet away. Evidence like this suggests that even if everyone sits 6 feet (or farther!) apart while inside and eating and drinking, COVID-19 still may be likely to spread.

Below, Dr. Gohil reviews other concerns around New Year's festivities raised by officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and why you should really stay home with your family this year.

You can view full safety guidelines issued by CDC officials here, with instructions for hosts on how to lower the risk of any holiday gathering. We're reviewing some of the most important directions below, but it's crucial that you review these guidelines and any other guidelines set forth by your local health department.

What are the risks associated with New Year's Eve?

Holidays are usually a time to embrace your family, friends and loved ones, often spending hours on end celebrating traditions — and on New Year's Eve, singing, dancing, and enjoying a few drinks and festive bites. During the pandemic, though, all of those activities carry a significant risk. And some of the most timeless New Year's Eve traditions (Think: kissing at midnight, or sharing champagne flutes!) should prompt people to think twice about how they're celebrating this year.

While most will likely avoid traditions that are so obviously a risk for getting sick, there are other dangers for gathering on New Year's Eve that you should consider:

  • Shared air supply: Joining any kind of group or crowd in a small interior room is inherently risky, but even a small crowd in a larger event space can elevate your risk compared to outside areas. Wearing masks can work against the likelihood that infectious airborne particles end up spreading to people inside. But spending hours on end in small spaces with limited airflow (even with masks in play!) isn't safe by any means.

  • Dancing and singing: It's likely that most New Year's Eve hosts won't have all of the invited guests seated quietly 6 feet apart from each other. Rather, New Year's Eve often includes dancing and singing, which can increase the likelihood that COVID-19 can pass through shared airspace.

  • Loud music: Yes, really! It boils down to having guests shouting rather than speaking to one another. "This is a time when we project; the more noise we have indoors, the more you are going to want to project your voice," Dr. Gohill explains. "The louder things get, the more we all want to talk forcefully, and so we start spewing whatever is in our airways, which is problematic."

  • Party favors, food, and drinks: Scientists have maintained that food itself hasn't been causing COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic, nor is it a concern on its own. But having people congregate around a shared holiday buffet of appetizers, cocktails, and trinkets like kazoos or confetti crackers can increase the likelihood that the virus is passed from hand-to-hand. Inoculation, or rubbing your face, eyes, nose, or mouth with a dirty hand, is still a considerable concern for COVID-19 spread in communities, Dr. Gohil says. While providing guests with hand sanitizers or handwashing stations can help lower that risk, hand hygiene may fall by the wayside throughout the night for some.

  • High touch surfaces: All of the surfaces in your home can harbor infectious virus throughout the evening — think doorknobs, handles, serving utensils, and even soft surfaces on chairs and the like. You'd have to frequently disinfect these surfaces throughout the night to ensure that there isn't any risk to guests, and most people don't do that.

For those tracking the pandemic in the U.S., private events behind closed doors have become primary concerns, as many local leaders have already instituted heightened regulations around things like indoor dining and entertainment. After many states reintroduced capacity limits on shopping, dining, and traveling, Dr. Gohil explains that "the most common mode of transmission then became private gatherings" in California's Orange County. "Much more of the uptick in cases really did happen post-Thanksgiving," she adds. "I think that's what's happening across the nation where you're seeing the surge. The virus doesn't care if you're in a public forum or in someone's house, it's just looking to propagate."

Should I accept an invite to a New Year's Eve party?

If you've been invited to an event, be sure to have an open conversation with the host to see what measures they're taking to alleviate the risks listed above. If any one of the risks above is apparent in an invitation — i.e. your host plans to have a DJ and dance party — it's best to stay home.

Many states and cities have already rolled out restrictions and cancellations to their New Year's Eve programming for residents and visitors. In New York, the renowned Times Square ball drop will be held digitally; fireworks will not go off on the Las Vegas strip this year; and festivities in New Orleans' French Quarter are also largely impacted. While each municipality is different, there may be special guidelines or regulations in your city, town, or county that prohibits public venues from hosting large crowds, likely resulting in cancellations of public New Year's Eve events. Be sure to either check with a venue to hear about how they plan to ensure COVID-19 guidelines before accepting an invite or check with your local health department to see if such events are even permitted at this time.

Just like other holidays this year, those who are at greater risk for severe complications related to COVID-19 — primarily, elderly individuals, those with weakened immune systems, and preexisting conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular issues — should stay home.

Lastly, travel is being moderated now more than ever before, with 25 states currently restricting travel in some fashion, per the New York Times. You should refrain from traveling via public transport or across state lines for New Year's Eve, Dr. Gohil advises. Recently, CDC officials launched a new interactive tool to check local and state restrictions in any destination using a zip code. It also asks you a list of questions about traveling, and if you answer "yes" to any of them, officials advise that you stay home entirely.

Can we gather outside?

Some may have the opportunity to gather for an event outside in warmer climates — or, may wish to continue New Year's Day traditions like marathons or community swims on the first day of 2021. If you must participate in a sporting event or community event, try to avoid crowds, even in the open air; and you shouldn't encourage members of your household to come along to the event if they're just going to be spectators.

The risk associated with a gathering held at home really boils down to the kind of outdoor space you have access to, and who you are inviting. If you can comfortably arrange seating outside to be at least 6 feet apart, and follow CDC guidance that asks guests to bring their own food and drinks, while also wearing masks when possible — and completing all other best practices that we've mastered throughout the year — you may choose to do so. In some cases, like in California, state and local health departments have issued safety guidelines for private gatherings, even those held outside in backyards, lawns, porches, or driveways. You should always adhere to these guidelines when possible.

The last consideration may be the most disheartening for those who love celebrating New Year's Eve — alcohol consumption. Drinking at home during the holidays isn't a crime by far, Dr. Gohil explains, but it may become problematic when you add guests who aren't living in your house into the mix. "We're jovial, and we talk and laugh a lot, which are normal things to do… it becomes a problem, though, when you do lose your inhibitions a little bit and loosen up on the safety measures you carefully planned earlier," she says. And mistakes may be made because many Americans, understandably, are experiencing fatigue around social distancing.

"Here we are now, in the moment of highest risk we have been in the entire pandemic — we've been at this for so long that we're now looking for some type of answer or solution to help us cope," Dr. Gohil adds. "The truth is, though, now's the time to hunker down and keep your eye on the ball — hang in there for a few more months into the new year, and make your night about letting 2020 go."

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