Will COVID-19 cancel your family reunion?

As vaccines roll out, traveling to gather with relatives is possible this summer. Here’s how to keep it small and safer.

Carmelita Brown, 77, has been painstakingly careful with her health over the past year, even after being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. “I’m older and African American, so I’m higher risk,” she says. When she recently flew from her home in Florida to Montana for her goddaughter’s wedding, she donned three masks and a face shield on the plane.

The 20-person, mostly outdoor affair was such a trouble-free experience that Brown is now itching to plan a summer trip with her kids and grandkids. Among the group vacations being discussed: a Mexican getaway; an Alaskan cruise (a do-over for a 2020 trip that was canceled); or, says Brown,“I was thinking Vancouver or Victoria, but the Canadian border is still shut.”

Like Brown, many Americans are anxious to reunite with family this summer after months of lockdowns and delayed trips. Travel advisor Suzy Schreiner of Azure Blue Vacations is dubbing 2021 the year of the rendezvous. “Almost everybody has a group they’re traveling with,” she says.

In a second summer of COVID-19, planning a family reunion of any kind requires working through thorny details. “There’s pent-up demand and interest, but still a great deal of caution,” says Rainer Jenss, founder of the Family Travel Association. Certain kinds of trips that would have appealed before—big-ship cruises, dozens-of-cousins resort meetups—are mostly out, researching restaurants near your destination with curbside pickup is in. Here’s what to consider as you plan a family reunion.

Stay healthy in a group

No matter where travelers go, they can’t escape COVID-19 risks. That means safety protocols have to be part of your itinerary, says Joshua K. Schaffzin, director of Infection Control & Prevention at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He encourages families to have honest conversations ahead of time about how they’ll handle various scenarios, like if rain washes out a scheduled outdoor dinner.

Having a fully vaccinated group makes these choices much simpler, notes Lucy McBride, an internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C., who writes a weekly COVID-19 newsletter. “Then the risk is close to zero,” she says. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears poised to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 12 years old this week. But even unvaccinated kids get a large degree of protection when interacting with fully inoculated family and friends. 

See where you can travel after you’ve been vaccinated.

En route to destinations and when participating in activities with unjabbed folks, families need to keep following virus safety protocols (masks, social distancing, hand washing), particularly in potentially crowded locations such as airports, restaurants, and tourist attractions.

For example, McBride’s unvaccinated niece and nephew will be part of her family’s hiking and fishing vacation this summer. Although she’s not worried about spending time with the children indoors, they’ll need to get tested before the trip to make sure they’re not bringing an infection with them. “And I wouldn’t want them to go out in public without a mask,” she says.

Not sure which rules make sense for your group? If you’re mixing unvaccinated people from several different households, McBride suggests talking it out with a doctor. Expect a rubric of choices rather than a definitive reply—there’s no magical maximum group size or list of approved activities. Instead, it’s a matter of balancing multiple factors. “People want to be told yes or no. The answer is it depends,” she says. “You have to know what your risks are and your risk tolerance.” 

Schaffzin notes that new variants or spikes in cases could pop up at any time. “So it’s completely reasonable to make plans, but pay attention to the numbers.” If hospitals are filling up near your destination, that’s probably not the best time to go. 

Where to go and when to book

Thinking of renting a beach house in a classic family destination like North Carolina’s Outer Banks or road tripping to a national park? Book reservations soon.

“It’s not just you. Everybody has the same idea,” says Sally Black, founder of Vacation Kids and author of Fearless Family Vacations: Make Everyone Happy Without Losing Your Mind. Her travel agency has been fielding multiple similar requests for groups of a dozen or fewer people interested in outdoor activities. Many families want to check out dude ranches, a trend Black appreciates. “I love cowboys,” she says. “It’s like luxury camping—get outdoorsy without a tent.” But availability is always tricky, and this year, it’s practically impossible. She’s already booking family ranch trips for summer 2022.

See how innovative campsites are helping families get outdoors now.

According to Vrbo data, optimistic families started snagging vacation rental houses months earlier than normal, and they’ve booked extra-long stays.

Anywhere close to famous natural wonders will likely be teeming with visitors and caravans of RVs. Yosemite National Park is requiring reservations to enter this summer, one of many strategies the National Park Service is using to protect popular sites from overcrowding.

Black says to stay flexible and prepare for some sticker shock, since the surge of interest in outdoor adventures means there are fewer deals. Refundable options also tend to cost more, but are wise given the uncertainty of, well, everything.

What about cruises and international trips?

Several kinds of travel that were impossible for much of 2020 are now on the table. Long-neglected American passports may soon be welcome again in Europe—for those who flash their vaccination cards. Cruise ships, which have been under do-not-sail orders since spring of 2020, have gotten the green light from the CDC to resume U.S. operations by mid-summer as long as 95 percent of customers and 98 percent of crew have been vaccinated. (McBride thinks this could be a good way to incentivize people who are vaccine hesitant to get their shots.)

These developments are welcome news to many people, especially those hoping to be among the first tourists back in places that had mostly shut down to outsiders. But Jenss doesn’t expect that everyone will rush into faraway meet-ups. “The wild card is how safe families feel about leaving the country and being let back in,” he says. 

See what it’s like to take a cruise during a pandemic.

Nearby countries (Costa Rica, Mexico) or a Caribbean island might seem less daunting, Jenss says. While these places have remained open to visitors for much of the pandemic, they aren’t necessarily safer than other international destinations. The U.S. State Department and the CDC both recommend not going to Mexico, where COVID-19 caseloads remain high and vaccination efforts are slow.

The longer you can hold off on international travel the better, advises Schaffzin, because more COVID-19 research and more vaccinations will eventually make the world safer. His far-flung clan is subbing monthly Zoom for an in-person gathering this year. Dozens of Brown’s relatives who usually meet every other summer in a different U.S. city are postponing their reunion, too. “We have a committee, and it voted that we can’t get together until everyone is vaccinated,” she says.

As long as she can see her closest relatives now, Brown says the bigger plans—and bigger reunions—can wait until 2022.

Vicky Hallett is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers family, travel, and health issues.

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