Holiday COVID Etiquette: How to Handle the Subject of Vaccination Status When Gathering With Family
COVID concerns — and vaccine debates — could make this a particularly awkward holiday season for gathering with loved ones. As such, we turned to two experts for advice on how to handle the touchy subject. Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
There’s always a lot to juggle around the holidays — family gatherings, parties, shopping, cooking, work, kids, grandkids. And after missing out on big gatherings last year thanks to COVID-19, many people are approaching the upcoming holiday with even more enthusiasm than usual. But things aren’t back to normal yet, or even fully settled into a “new” normal.
Even in the “normal” years, gatherings could be fraught — too many of them, too much food, too much alcohol, too many hurt feelings and walking on eggshells. This year, on top of the usual stresses of the season, there hangs the issue of vaccination status, as jabbed and unjabbed alike come together (or not) to celebrate.
To help navigate the potentially perilous waters of how to handle the vaccine question over the holidays, we went to the experts — not the medical experts, because by now we know what they recommend. Instead, we asked two etiquette experts: Ottawa-based Julie Blais Comeau, Chief Etiquette Officer at EtiquetteJulie.com; and August Abbott, a California-based nondenominational minister, counsellor and, since 2003, etiquette expert on JustAnswer.com.
Here’s what they had to say on some of the big questions around etiquette involving vaccine status and holiday gatherings:
If You’re Hosting the Party …
No two ways about it, says Blais Comeau: invitations should be delivered in person or over the phone — especially during this extra-sensitive holiday season — to keep the misinterpretations to a minimum. “Ideally it should be face to face,” she says. “But the telephone is always appropriate because you’ll be able to have a conversation, to go back and forth, to validate, clarify, to answer questions or to ask questions.”
But it’s up to the host to explain what they are expecting — politely — in terms of vaccination status.
“‘We have some compromised individuals’ — they don’t need to explain who or what — ‘and out of respect and safety we’re requesting that everybody who comes be vaccinated,’” Abbott offers as an example. Short of asking for proof, though, you’re just going to have to make a leap of faith that everyone will honour your request.
“Your house, your castle, your rules,” adds Blais Comeau. “You are responsible for your guests’ safety and security. That means the walkways should be well-lit, the stairs should be cleared of snow. It means you’ll be responsible when serving alcohol and, when in doubt, you’ll make sure people will be able to get home safely. It’s the same responsibility that applied when you hosted an event in 1918 and will still apply in 2025.”
If You’re Invited to a Gathering…
Is it wrong to ask the host if everyone at the party will be fully vaccinated?
Blais Comeau compares it to a person with a deadly allergy to shellfish asking if shellfish is on the menu. “If you are responsible for your health and that of your family or others, it is perfectly acceptable to ask about the status of vaccination and what the pandemic precautions will be.” But, she adds, “The way that you ask, the tone, is crucial.”
So it’s “Thank you for thinking of us” or “Is anyone coming who’s not vaccinated because I just want to be sure to wear a mask around them.”
It’s about keeping it light, adds Abbott. “And not judging.”
Blais Comeau thinks there’s a higher level of understanding and respect for people’s comfort level, thanks to the pandemic. “It is always perfectly acceptable to decline an invitation,” she says. “Your reasons are your own. You don’t have to state why. What is important, though, is to recognize the invitation and thank them for it.”
If you do go but things feel unsafe, it’s perfectly fine to leave early, she adds. “You say to the host, ‘We’re just getting used to going back out again, and for now, that’s our comfort level.’ You’re not going to shame them.”
Can You Rapid Test Your Guests on Party Day?
“It’s extreme,” says Abbott. But Blais Comeau says it’s acceptable, as long as you let your guests know ahead of time so they can prepare — or decline the invitation — accordingly.
What if Someone Is Grumbling About the Pandemic at the Party?
Despite vaccination status, there are some opinions that are better left at home on party night. Both Abbott and Blais Comeau agree that it’s okay to make your gathering a COVID-free zone: no talk about the pandemic, vaccines or politics.
“One of the psychological tricks is to engage people as leaders, especially the most troublesome ones,” says Abbott. “So if Uncle George is carrying on, you say ‘I want you to help me keep discussions away from politics, religion and COVID. You and I will work as a team!’”
Blais Comeau agrees. If people talk about the forbidden subjects, she says, “they have to drop a loonie into a jar and then there will be a donation made to charity. And that will bring us back to our social manners — the art of small talk.”
Pandemic or not, the perfect host should always be armed with a few good saves if the level of discourse starts to go south.
“But they have to be good ones — something that person wants to pursue,” Abbott says. If all else fails, ask your guest about themselves. “Well,” she adds, “there’s no more interesting subject than that.”