Choose to keep chairs empty at the holidays this year or risk having them empty for years to come. That’s the message being delivered in various forms by public health experts and politicians as COVID-19 continues to spread at a devastating pace.
The promise of an effective vaccine becoming widely available in 2021 means holiday gatherings are expected to be less risky next year and beyond, a hopeful future that could provide a pandemic-weary nation the resolve to scale down their celebrations this year.
“Your actions today are going to protect Christmas next year… you don’t want to have empty seats where grandma (and other relatives) used to be,” Gleb Tsipursky, who holds a Ph.D. in the history of behavioral science, told USA TODAY.
But even with the nation’s hospitals filling up, many Americans are primed to make risky decisions this December they will regret for years to come, said Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of a book about adapting to “the new abnormal” of COVID-19.
It doesn’t have to be that way – especially if Americans make an effort to adjust their thinking and expectations, experts told USA TODAY.
Hope Grows, But Danger Increases
Part of the problem, as Tsipursky sees it: Good news surrounding a vaccine has created a disorienting mix of long-term hope amid increasing short-term danger – all at the moment Americans face pressure to gather with loved ones this holiday season.
That jumble of information tends to confuse people and can lead many to make bad decisions, Tsipursky said. In situations like this, humans tend to throw out the bad news and focus on short-term joy.
Compounding the problem: Pandemic-weary Americans are starved for pleasure, Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain, told USA TODAY. That can lead people to overvalue it, making comforting holiday rituals seem more appealing than ever, despite their danger this year.
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Start Planning for “Best” Christmas Ever – Next Year
The long-term outlook for the course of the pandemic has rapidly improved in recent weeks, giving Americans a luxury they haven’t had for months: Confidence that things will soon get better.
Just weeks ago, Tsipursky told USA TODAY he expected the pandemic to only slowly improve over the course of years. But surprisingly effective results from vaccine candidates since then have improved his predictions.
With that good news, Tsipursky encouraged Americans to indulge in planning for an amazing holiday season – next year.
“Make Christmas 2021 the best you’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s going to be so much better. COVID is going to be behind us.”
That’s the model followed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said he’s most likely scrapping Christmas plans this year as he did for Thanksgiving.
“For my own family, I’m saying we had a really great Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. We’re looking forward to a really great Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2021,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases previously told USA TODAY.
Remember the Risk
But a happy holiday season next year hinges on family members staying healthy – a joyful future that should motivate millions of Americans to stay safe this holiday season, Greenberg suggested.
“What would next Christmas be like if someone got sick?” Greenberg asked. She encouraged having that possibility to mind when making decisions this holiday season.
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In Belgium, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world, the country’s prime minister also invoked the dark “empty chair” example, asking the nation to leave a chair empty at Christmas dinner or face the possibility of having that chair empty forever.
Greenberg suggested that physical reminders can be powerful motivators for people trying to avoid risky behavior in the holiday season and beyond.
One idea: Have a physical reminder of future plans. Plan travel for late in 2021 and print out the tickets. Keep a picture of vulnerable family members around and imagine a happy, healthy holiday season next year.
A safe holiday season doesn’t mean totally depriving yourself of joy, Greenberg said. Everyone should think about the level of risk they are willing to take – how much short-term pleasure is worth the possibility of long-term consequences.
There are ways of minimizing risk if families choose to gather, although some areas of the country may have more strict regulations. In general, health experts are recommending holding events outdoors, limiting their size, having participants wear masks and maintaining social distance as strategies to minimize risk this year.
But such sacrifices are not easy, Greenberg acknowledged: “You have to keep two concepts in your mind a the same time: the present and the future.”
Originally published by USA TODAY
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