Julie, who is 38 and lives in North Carolina, considers herself, her husband, and their two children “zero COVID people.” Motivated by studies about COVID-19’s potential long-term effects on the body, they orient their lives around not getting the virus. That means avoiding indoor spaces where people won’t be masked, often wearing masks outside, and seeking out service providers who are still taking precautions, such as masking and using air purifiers. For the most part, Julie says, this is fine. “There’s not a whole lot we don’t do,” she says—they just do it all in high-quality masks. (Like others interviewed for this story, Julie asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her family’s privacy.)
The holidays, however, present some challenges. Julie’s relatives are no longer willing to take the safety measures that would make her family feel comfortable gathering with them in person, she says, so her family pod will celebrate by “making better food” than usual and eating it at home. The hardest part, she says, is watching family members who were once open to isolating for 14 days before visits now forgo precautions, knowing that means Julie and her family won’t feel comfortable joining the festivities.
“We’re not skipping; we’re being excluded,” Julie says. If her relatives were willing to wear good masks inside and eat outside, she says she’d be “mostly” comfortable getting together. But that willingness—so strong in 2020—has by now faded away.
Other COVID-cautious people are likely facing similar disagreements with loved ones. According to data from the Harris Poll collected for TIME, holiday celebrations are moving back toward their pre-pandemic norms. This year, 72% of U.S. adults plan to celebrate the holidays with at least one person outside their household—down from the 81% who did so before the pandemic, but up from 66% last year. About 45% plan to travel during this year’s holiday season, compared to 58% pre-pandemic and 42% last year.
But even as much of the country moves on from pandemic-era policies, plenty of families are still planning to spend the holidays gathered around Zoom screens and outdoor heat lamps, doing their best to take “a side dish and gift to the holiday dinner, not a virus,” as Claire, 39, puts it. About 55% of U.S. adults said COVID-19 will affect their holiday plans, according to the TIME-Harris Poll data. Even among those who will be gathering with others in person, about a third plan to limit the size of their celebrations, while 12% said they’d require masks or hold the event outdoors.
Claire and her husband, who live in the South, will do all of the above. They were careful about disease spread even prior to the pandemic, since they have a 4-year-old who was born prematurely and could experience serious complications from respiratory illnesses. This holiday season, they’ll bundle up and wear masks to celebrate on the patio at Claire’s in-laws’ house. For Thanksgiving dinner, they’ll eat at opposite corners of the patio before putting their masks back on. If it’s too cold on Christmas to open presents outside, they’ll exchange gifts and then head back to their respective homes to unwrap them.
That’s the way they’ve done it since 2020, Claire says, but she acknowledges that the system requires sacrifices. She doesn’t feel comfortable attending her grandmother’s large, multi-family Thanksgiving dinner and she mostly sees her friends and their children via Zoom these days. But for Claire, the downsides pale in comparison to keeping her family healthy in the face of a virus that, for a subset of people who catch it, can potentially lead to life-long disability. “I’m in a situation where I’m able to protect my child and protect us, and I’m going to do everything that I can,” she says.
Other families with risk factors are also going to great lengths to avoid the virus. Karen, who is 39 and lives in Tennessee, has had post-viral illness complications including chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia for 22 years, ever since she caught mono as a teenager and never fully recovered. A common cold can land her in bed for six weeks. COVID-19, her doctor warned her in 2020, could be catastrophic for her health.
With the virus still spreading widely, Karen, her husband, and their toddler remain almost completely locked down, venturing out primarily for medical appointments and distanced outdoor activities such as bike rides, picnics, and hikes. When friends come over, her family visits with them through a window. That means big holiday gatherings are off the table for the foreseeable future.
“It’s always been very important for me to have an open house for anybody who didn’t have a place to go” over the holidays, Karen says. But these days, her doors remain closed to everyone except her husband’s parents, who live locally and lead a similarly locked-down lifestyle.
Max, who is 26 and lives in New York City, is following his parents’ lead when it comes to the virus. His parents wear masks everywhere and avoid riskier environments, such as restaurants and movie theaters, since COVID-19 can be severe for people in their age group. Max opted to spend Thanksgiving with his girlfriend’s family rather than his own to avoid making his parents anxious about potentially getting sick.
He may go home for the winter holidays, he says, since he’ll have more time to quarantine and test beforehand. Max says he’d feel fine dropping those precautions if his parents no longer requested them, but for now, he’s happy to do what will make them comfortable. “I understand the principle that the more at-risk people set the rules,” he says.
Not everyone is so understanding. Kara Darling, who is 46 and lives in Delaware, is in the process of divorcing her husband because he was ready to “reintegrate” into society around the time vaccines rolled out, and she has chosen to remain highly COVID-cautious by working remotely, homeschooling her kids, and socializing only with those who are willing to take strict precautions. Darling’s stance is informed both by her work as a practices and research manager at a clinic that treats people with complex conditions, which has exposed her to the realities of life with Long COVID, and by the fact that three of her children have overactive immune systems.
“You grieve your plans and the reality you thought you were going to have and what you thought life was going to look like,” she says. “When you get to acceptance, then the question becomes, ‘Am I going to sit around and bemoan the existence of a life I wish I had, or am I going to pivot?’”
Darling has chosen to pivot. She runs multiple Facebook groups for people who are “still COVIDing”—that is, still taking precautions against getting the virus. She also set up a recurring outdoor meetup for homeschooled kids in her area and has cultivated a community willing to build new holiday traditions for the pandemic era. Families in her “still COVIDing” circle mail cards ahead of Valentine’s Day and treats for Halloween. They exchange home-cooked dishes on Thanksgiving and eat them together over Zoom. They leave gifts on porches for birthdays and honk when they drive by to say hello.
Darling’s Thanksgiving will be small this year—just her household, her oldest son, and her son’s girlfriend, cooking and eating together at home. (Darling’s son and his girlfriend don’t live with her, so they’ll avoid any unnecessary public activities, wear respirators, and test multiple times in the 10 days before coming over.) But outside the walls of her house, Darling has built connections that help her get through the dark moments.
“It’s about being part of a community,” she says. “We built a trusted family.”