It may be tempting, but our experts say that multiple small gatherings aren't any safer than one big one.

After months of social distancing, limited guest lists, and restrictions on the size of public events, it's tempting to consider breaking up your traditional holiday celebrations into smaller parties held over several days. But even if each party follows your state's individual guidelines, the accumulated number of people you're exposed to increases your risk of contracting—or passing on—the coronavirus.

family around dinner table on christmas
Credit: Getty / Klaus Vedfelt

"It is not safer to host or attend multiple small gatherings in the same week," says Neysa Ernst, RN, of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. "COVID-19 follows similar trajectories to other public health outbreaks. The 1918 'Spanish Flu' was under control in Philadelphia, until the Public Health Commissioner approved a parade to sell War Bonds and the flu surged again. Ebola spread at cultural gatherings like funerals." Parties that include family members meeting up from different parts of a region or country can also encourage the spread of the virus. "Bottom line to me is that COVID-19 transmission becomes a math game," says Ernst. "The more people plus the more travel equals the more risk for someone being in contact with someone who has COVID-19. Less travel—less chance of infection."

If you're the traditional host for your family's big holiday party, cutting the guest list might feel awkward or even rude. "Back in the day—approximately six months ago—the motto was the more the merrier," says etiquette expert Maryanne Parker of Manor of Manners. "Today we are living in a completely different world and the old motto is no longer valid. We need to adjust to the change and behave accordingly, and the best policy with family members is to be honest about it." If your family is likely to assume that you'll be hosting the same large group you always do, send a note that includes phrasing like, "'We do apologize for the inconvenience, we will be able to host only immediate family members at this time,'" says Parker. But if you've already sent a formal invitation and need to politely un-invite people, then make time for an in-person chat where you can clarify the situation. "We will definitely need to call them as well and explain the personal reasons," says Parker. "Many people will be actually relieved during this pandemic."

If you do choose to host smaller gatherings spaced out over a few months (a much safer option than hosting several over one weekend, for instance), one easy way to rework your guest lists is by common interests, locales, ages, and more says Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "You can go by geography (host everyone who lives in this town and then everyone from the next), by age groupings (60 and older one day, 30 and younger another day), by menu (carnivores, and then vegetarians, and vegans); or by interests (Red Sox fans vs. Yankee fans)," she says. "This way, there's no need to keep the smaller size a secret." Smith recommends inviting guests to more intimate parties with a note like, "While we will not be able to all celebrate together this year, we can still gather in smaller groups. Your party-pod is invited on…" Another essential element to a smaller-party invitation, says Ernst, is a reminder that bowing out last minute if a guest isn't feeling well is perfectly appropriate. She says, "Include in your invitation simple statements like, 'We will miss you, but most importantly we are grateful that you show you care about others by staying away if you don't feel okay.'"


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