This story was originally published on October 29, 2020. It was updated December 10, 2020, to reflect the ever-changing nature of holiday travel plans during COVID.
As New York City attempts to hold off a winter COVID spike, Mayor Bill de Blasio went so far as to ask New Yorkers—those constantly moving millions—to stay put this holiday season. “I hate to say it, but I have to urge all New Yorkers: Do not travel out of state for the holidays,” de Blasio said during a press briefing in late October. “Realize that by doing that, unfortunately, you could be putting yourself and your family in danger.
“We’re going to feel that pull to want to be with our families, want to be with our loved ones. We’re going to feel that pull to do what we would do in a normal year. But it’s not a normal year,” de Blasio said.
True statement—but it’s a bitter pill to swallow in a year when we need our loved ones most. When we first published this story on October 29, the daily case count averaged 70,000. Currently, the U.S. rolling average of new infections is nearly triple that, hovering above 200,000 daily, according to the CDC. The spikes have prompted more cities and states to issue lockdowns or new quarantines for incoming travelers, including California (which went into lockdown this month) on the West Coast; New Jersey and Vermont on the East Coast; plus Chicago and New Mexico, among others.
At AFAR, our editors watch state-by-state infection rates, restrictions, and quarantines closely, and we field a lot of questions from friends and family about where to go, when, and how to do so responsibly. But when it comes to these very real, personal questions about visiting loved ones, we’re struggling like everyone else to make a smart, careful decision. Our editors are in big cities—New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London—and small towns from Oregon to New Jersey right now. In some cases, our families are far flung. We made plans in October—and two weeks later, some of us had to scrap them. Here’s what a few of us plan to do (or attempt to do) this holiday season.
Staying in state—it’s just too complicated
“I’m long overdue for a flight from California back home to England, but the roller coaster of regulations and minefield of cases in both places make that look increasingly unlikely. If it was just me and my wife it might be doable, with tests and quarantines, but throw in a five-year-old and twin one-year-olds, and it just doesn’t make sense. Technically, we could travel there and back (we’re all either dual citizens or Green Card holders and allowed in, both ways)—but we’ll probably stick to visiting relatives on California’s central coast, with a final COVID test in L.A. before we leave. I’m still desperate to buy a flight home for some time in the near- to mid-future, though.” —Tim Chester, senior news editor
With California’s stay-home order and surging cases, canceled plans to visit my parents
“My parents live in Southern California and I live in Northern California, so chances are high that we’ll end up at their place for the holidays. We have already visited them once over the summer and since it’s within driving distance, we feel the risks of traveling to their place are minimal. The only thing that has changed since this summer is that our son went back to in-person preschool, so we will pull him out of preschool a week or so before the trip, then we’ll all get polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests (also known as the nasal swab test), as research has shown that these tests are more accurate than the rapid-result antigen tests. If the results are negative, we’ll drive down to Orange County as planned.
“My brother, who lives in Romania with his wife and two sons, is also planning on joining us. This part has been a bit murkier. As dual citizens, they’re legally allowed to travel between the U.S. and Europe despite current restrictions on travel between the continents. However, I’ve asked my brother and his family to take PCR tests on day 5 and quarantine for one week (as per the CDC’s international travel advice). Only after receiving negative results would they then head to my parents’ home to ensure the health and safety of my parents, who are in their 70s. Having this conversation has been an ongoing process. Like all things COVID, nothing is easy. But I think with some respect, understanding, and maturity we can get through these tough decisions and hopefully have a wonderful holiday all together—that’s the whole point, right?” —Michelle Baran, travel news editor
Updated December 10, 2020: “I already had a bad feeling about the Christmas holiday leading into Thanksgiving, as coronavirus cases and public health warnings were mounting. Between the strong recommendations of public health officials to not gather and California’s recently implemented stay-home order intended to stave off a public health calamity here, I let my family know that I would be skipping Christmas. I told them it’s not the right time, we need to all work together to help flatten the curve, that the vaccines are on the way, and we should postpone any gatherings for now. My brother is still planning to visit my parents from Romania, thankfully at least with the quarantine and testing protocol I had initially requested still in place.” —M.B.
Planned to go home to California for a month—then canceled
“My sister and I both live in New York, which means our mom has been sheltering-in-place alone in the Bay Area since March. While it’s not unusual for us all to spend Easter or Thanksgiving apart on opposite coasts, the fact that my mom has a milestone birthday just two weeks after Christmas meant I really wanted to figure out a way to be with her in person for both the holiday and her birthday this year.
“It’s too complicated for my sister—who has a kid in school in New York—but I’m single and live alone, making it easier for me to be gone for longer. My plan is to get tested in New York and have negative PCR test results before I board a plane to San Francisco on December 18. Then I’ll quarantine for the five days it would take for COVID symptoms to appear at a friend’s empty house in the East Bay, get another test on December 23, and once I have a second set of negative results, I’ll move into my mom’s house by Christmas Eve. I plan on being in her bubble for a month so we can celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, and her mid-January birthday together in person before I fly back to New York.” —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor
Updated November 18, 2020: “After consulting my mom, we decided it wasn’t smart for me to fly to California with case counts higher than ever throughout the United States and plan on rescheduling the trip postvaccine, when we can do more than just sit around her house all day anyways.” —L.M.