I love entertaining and over the years I’ve learned to cope with all sorts of potential disasters: blizzards, drunken guests (yes, Dan, I’m thinking of your three-martini-chugging experiment), being cornered by a friend’s heartbroken suitor who read me his terrible poetry for an hour, a feral cat tearing the hide off one guest’s lapdog and another's golden retriever... It’s a long list. But this is the first time I’ve ever had to worry about presiding over a super-spreader event, and I have to admit at first I was a bit nonplussed.
Weeks ago, when I sent out invitations to our annual December 25 lunch, I thought I was going the extra mile by requiring everyone to be fully vaxxed and alerting them to dress warmly as all the windows would be open for ventilation. At that time, Spain had recently been declared the safest travel destination in Europe and was viewed as the poster child for how to manage Covid with vaxxing, masking, and social distancing. Everyone was predicting a huge influx of tourists early in 2022; I even wrote a book about Seville’s New Normal to help visitors to get in on the fun. Did I jinx everything with that book? If so, sorry about that, folks!
As you may have heard, even Spain couldn’t hold out forever against the combination of Delta and Omicron. Our numbers kept creeping upwards, and on Friday, December 17, we crossed the line. With more than 500 cases per 100,000, we were officially in the high-risk category.
I remember staring at that announcement on the TV screen, wondering what to do. Should I cancel lunch on the 25th? Require guests to wear hazmat suits? Give everyone their turkey in doggie bags at the door?
I took some deep breaths, then performed a qigong exercise called Ten Dragons Running Through the Forest. You place all ten fingers on top of your head and shove them through your hair from front to back; repeat five times. It’s great for your chi and less drastic than actually tearing your hair out. As usual, I followed Ten Dragons Running Through the Forest with a few heartfelt exclamations of “Serenity now!” in the manner of George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld.
Once I’d used these time-honored spiritual exercises to restore my metaphysical equilibrium, I got to work researching the issue. Surely savvy epidemiologists had some suggestions for the holiday hostess who didn’t want to send her guests home with a potentially fatal disease?
Somewhat to my surprise, the experts did not advise cancelling holiday gatherings.
The main reason? After two years of high-stress pandemic living, we’re all shell-shocked and bumfuzzled (that's another way of saying discombobulated). Being with people we love is a great antidote, explains Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We need to balance that people really do need to be with their loved ones with appropriate risk-mitigation strategies.”
OK, but exactly how do we mitigate the risk? For a start, should we even consider traveling by air these days, as 47 million Americans will be doing this season?
Plane rides are the least of our worries, according to Katelyn Jetelina, author of Your Local Epidemiologist blog and mother of two very small daughters. “I’ve flown several times with the girls throughout the course of the pandemic and have never been necessarily concerned about the flight itself. The air filtration is great on planes, there’s mandatory masking, and flight attendants do a darn good job of enforcing it. (Thank you!) If this wasn’t the case, there’s no way I would fly with my girls.” Airports, Uber rides, and other aspects of travel can be more risky; you’ll want to take full precautions. And of course, be sure to familiarize yourself with terms and conditions in other countries you'll be visiting.
What about holiday gatherings? Like many other experts, Jetelina suggests that you make sure everyone at the party is fully vaxxed; if not, and the unprotected won’t agree to mask up indoors, she suggest you respectfully decline to attend. She also urges everyone to take a Covid test two days before the event and the morning of.
Hmmm, I thought when I read this. I’d already made sure all 17 of my guests had gotten their shots, but I hadn’t considered making self-testing part of the plan. When I wrote to everyone to suggest it, the response was instantaneous and enthusiastic. “Excellent plan! Thank you,” everyone said. Now it turns out there's been a run on test kits; two days ago they were readily available in every pharmacy, and now nobody has them, although rumors abound that shipments are coming in any day now. Maybe I should revisit the idea of hazmat suits.
Seville’s still a long way from going full hazmat, but we are all gearing up to comply with the latest protection measures. Andalucían officials announced we’re now required to show proof of vaccination to enter a restaurant or bar; this is easy for vaccinated locals, who all have an EU Digital Covid Certificate on their phone. Theoretically visitors and expats can obtain some version of this certificate, but when I click on the appropriate link on the Spanish government’s website, I just get a blank page and a spinny wheel. I’ll keep trying and let you know what I find out.
Not having that handy digital certificate, Rich and I had to fall back on our CDC Covid Vaccination Cards today when we had lunch at a café. The owner, who had just finished taping up a sign about the new regulation, eyed the cards askance, but eventually he decided they (and we) were legit. Whew!
Meanwhile, Spain remains committed to its strategy of mass vaccination. On Wednesday it started inoculating kids aged five to eleven, and officials just approved giving boosters to everyone over forty, with older adults first in line.
However as we’re all learning, the current vaccinations aren’t as effective against Omicron. Some estimates suggest two shots give you 33% protection against infection, and the booster brings it up to 75%. “Just about everyone should be prepared to get infected during this wave, even if you’ve been vaccinated,” says Ohio State University chief quality and patient safety officer Iahn Gonsenhauser. Yikes! He adds that being vaxxed and boosted should protect us from significant symptoms. Not for the first time, I thanked my lucky stars (and Rich’s research skills, which located a last-minute pop-up clinic) that we managed to get our boosters before leaving the US.
As you can imagine, the nearby shrine of San Pancracio, Seville’s beloved patron saint of health, is more popular than ever. Even scoffers like me find ourselves slipping him a few coins and asking him to please keep us safe — if only for another week or two. In these uncertain times, there's one thing we know for sure: the best way to get through these shortest, darkest days of the year is together, with laughter on our lips, a glass of wine in one hand and a brownie in the other. Which is why I’m going ahead with lunch on December 25th. And with luck, my guests will go home with nothing but wonderful memories and Tupperware stuffed with leftover turkey.
Sometimes playing it too safe can be dangerous!
I want to thank you all for joining me on the journey through these challenging times.
Have the merriest possible holidays; you've earned some fun times!
I suspect you'll be too busy playing with your new toys and recovering from hangovers to read much on the blog, so I won't post again until the first week of January.
See you in 2022!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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