On December 2, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its holiday celebration recommendations for 2020 as well as its testing and quarantining recommendations around holiday travel. The updated recommendations include a shorter recommended quarantine period for people who have potentially been exposed to the virus: The CDC now recommends quarantining for 7-10 days (instead of 14 days) if you test negative and show no symptoms.

But throughout its updated guidelines, the CDC is nothing but clear in its primary recommendation for families this pandemic holiday season: The safest way to celebrate this year is to stay home with your immediate household.

With over 1 million COVID-19 cases reported in the United States in the 7 days leading into December, and cases continuing to grow across the country, the CDC says, “the safest way to celebrate holidays is to celebrate at home with the people you live with. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19.”

While the number of Thanksgiving weekend travelers in 2020 was far lower than in 2019, over 9 million Americans traveled during the holiday week, which is expected to lead to a surge in new cases in the month of December…making December travel look even riskier in terms of virus transmission potential.

That said, many families have their own reasons for considering holiday travel or gathering with people outside their immediate household on Christmas Day—such as co-parenting families and families with college students who aren’t allowed to stay on campus.

If your family plans for the holidays include travel or gathering with people outside your immediate household, here’s exactly when to start quarantining and get tested, according to the most recent CDC guidelines.

By December 10

Reduce non-essential contact outside your immediate household

For the 14 days leading up to Christmas, tighten up your circle as much as you possibly can. Consider having groceries, gifts and essentials delivered, and keep activities close to home. If you do need to meet with people outside your immediate household, keep it outdoors and short-term, and be sure everybody’s wearing masks.

As we all know by now, it’s possible to be infected with the coronavirus and infect others before experiencing symptoms—in fact, the latest research suggests that infected people are at their most contagious 2 days before symptoms even start, and then for 5 days after symptoms set in. Symptoms vary in severity and in some people can be quite mild, which in part is why it’s so easy for the virus to spread—people who don’t think they are sick can infect others without knowing it. Symptoms can also vary in how quickly they develop, which widens the potential window of virus exposure risk to others. All of which is why this year, health experts are asking people to take extra precautions to protect the ones they love.

7 days before and after holiday travel

Just to put it out there again, the CDC and other public health experts are strongly advising against holiday travel if it can be avoided. Even with increased health precautions for travelers and airlines implementing safety measures, travel remains a potential virus transmission risk.

But if you do need to travel, the CDC now recommends that you may not need to quarantine for a full 14 days if you test negative and show no symptoms within 10 days of potential exposure.

Here’s how to plan:

At least 7 days before travel: Reduce all non-essential exposure for at least 7 days before your trip, and preferably up to 14 days before traveling.

1 to 3 days before travel: Get tested. If the pre-Thanksgiving run on testing sites is any indication—with lines around the block and delayed results common in many areas—you’ll want to make plans well in advance so that you can get tested and get your test results back in time for your trip.

If you test positive, then obviously you shouldn’t travel, in order to avoid exposing others. If you test negative, then…

First 7 days after travel: Plan to quarantine for 7 days after arriving. “Quarantine” is one of those words that has come to mean a lot of different things depending on where it’s used, but in this case, quarantine means isolating as much as possible from anyone who didn’t travel with you (staying in a separate room or house and keeping 6 feet of distance from other people), wearing masks whenever you’re around others (even indoors) and washing hands frequently. During this period, monitor closely for COVID symptoms.

3 to 5 days after travel: Get another coronavirus test 3 to 5 days after traveling.

7 days after travel: If you test negative and don’t develop symptoms by day 7 after travel, then you can stop quarantining.

10 days after travel: If you don’t or can’t get tested after your arrival, then plan to quarantine for at least 10 days after arrival, and ideally the full 14 days.

When to postpone or cancel your travel plans: Again, the CDC has pretty straightforward guidance (including a nifty infographic) on when a trip needs to be canceled altogether—one more reason to consider purchasing trip insurance even if you’ve never been the type to do it before. Here’s when to cancel:

  • If you are sick with fever, cough or other COVID-19 symptoms
  • If you have recently tested positive for COVID-19
  • If you have had close contact with an infected person in the previous 14 days
  • If you are waiting for the results of a COVID test

To this list we’d add a couple of pretty obvious ones: If local travel restrictions do not permit travel to the area, or if anyone in the household you’re planning to visit has tested positive for COVID-19 or has symptoms, you should postpone or cancel the trip.

December 22 – December 24

Get tested if you plan to spend Christmas Day with people outside your household

If your Christmas Day plans include loved ones outside your immediate household, consider following the CDC recommendations for holiday travelers: Get tested 1 to 3 days before the gathering, especially if you have not been able to observe a 14-day quarantine beforehand, or if your family’s work or school schedule brings you into regular contact with potential virus exposure.

Three to five days after Christmas, anyone who gathered with others outside their household may want to be tested again just to be safe. And for 10-14 days after the holiday gather, limit any non-essential outside contacts or activities to minimize the possibility of infecting others if you might have been exposed. 

Following these guidelines as well as the CDC guidelines for Christmas gatherings with people outside your household will help keep everyone safer this year. And your family’s health is worth it.