Coronavirus pandemic transforms holiday etiquette

Traditional Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving holiday celebration party. Flat-lay of friends or family feasting at Thanksgiving Day festive table with turkey, pumpkin pie, roasted seasonal vegetables and fruit, top view.(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Foxys_forest_manufacture)
Paper cups instead of your finest china? Elbow bumps instead of bear-hugs for your relatives? Or no relatives at all?

The coronavirus pandemic is set to transform holiday gatherings as we know them, along with traditional rules of etiquette.

That’s forcing many people to figure out the new protocols for getting together in a pandemic — even two pros who have organized events not only for family and friends at their houses, but also presidents and prime ministers at the White House.

Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, and Capricia Marshall, who served as social secretary to former President Barack Obama, told WTOP that like everyone else, they’ve had to rethink their approach to social gatherings.

For McBride, the pandemic has meant keeping everything small and in the family. So this year, Thanksgiving will be limited to her husband and two children, along with another family that they’ve known for 30 years and have regularly spent time with during the pandemic.

“It will be small, but we’ll make it as festive as we can,” said McBride, whose White House service spanned two decades and who is now executive-in-residence at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.




McBride said that inviting people you know very well will be key during the holidays.

“They’re familiar with your home, they’re familiar with how you do things, and it makes it a little bit easier to handle a small dinner at your home,” she said.

That’s especially important when it comes to masks, because people take them off to eat, so any guest who accepts your invitation does so on the presumption that they’re comfortable without masks, McBride said.

For Marshall, ensuring that everyone is comfortable has literally meant segregating her home to accommodate three generations, including an elderly mother with health issues, a 20-year-old son who regularly comes home from college and a cardiologist husband who’s in and out of hospitals.

“So our home is set up in zones — the safety zones for mom, the quarantined zone for my husband and also my son when he gets back,” Marshall said, noting that since the pandemic began, she has only held a few small gatherings at her house, all of them outside.

Marshall, who also served as U.S. chief of protocol under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said many people are struggling to navigate the new social norms of COVID-19.

“So first and foremost, I would say stick to the traditional tenants of etiquette and appropriate social codes of conduct, which include being kind, practicing civility and respect, and truly being as patient as you possibly can,” Marshall said.

“We’re all managing this difficult time together. And we just have to practice a lot of patience. That being said, one of the most important elements of protocol is planning and preparation.”

This includes adhering to local regulations about the size of gatherings and preparing your guests in advance on what to expect when they come to your home, such as whether they will be outdoors or required to wear a mask.

“You can even put on your invitation BYOM — ‘Bring Your Own Mask.’ That really sends a signal to people that this is a home that is truly practicing the safest ways of gathering,” Marshall said. “So it’s planning appropriately and then being clear with expectations when you send out those invitations.”

Both Marshall and McBride agree that people will need to adapt to these new expectations, because they don’t see large get-togethers coming back any time soon.

“I think that the numbers will continue to stay limited,” Marshall said. “We are going to be managing this virus for a very long time … so we’re going to have to make those adjustments as we slowly make our way back into in-person gatherings.”

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Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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