Dan Haar: Got your booster? The awkward holiday party rules of COVID’s second Christmas

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I’ve been to four holiday gatherings in recent days, not much fewer than the usual December fare but they’ve unfolded far more strangely.

At all four, the hosts or organizers expected that everyone was vaccinated, and by now, no one needs to add “fully.” But the V-rule was clearly stated and the question was asked only at the small dinners — one with nine people at the home of a very healthy 88-year-old, another with five of us from four households.

The subject of boosters came up ahead of the dinner for nine — as a sort of awkward mention, not a requirement. Not everyone had gotten around to it yet and that was deemed OK, with raised eyebrows.

A normally indoor carol sing last Sunday turned into an outdoor block party, where, on a windless dusk, about 50 of us packed tightly around long, L-shaped food tables. Only one woman, who showed up after the crowd had thinned, wore a mask, an N-95 model.

On Friday, eight of us mounted a pot luck lunch in a fairly large room, an event that would normally bring dozens together.

Clearly, parties are fewer and smaller than normal this year, up from pretty much nonexistent last year, when Connecticut reached its second COVID-19 peak on the week before Christmas, right as the vaccinations began.

And the return of holiday parties brings confusion and some friction over what rules we ought to follow in the merriment. So many questions: Should those of us among the card-carrying vaccinated exclude anyone who hasn’t sat for a jab?

If we do exclude — my informal survey leaned toward a yes on that one — is that explicit or only with the unsafe assumption that we need not ask? Dare a host actually demand proof at the door?

“I would assume somebody secured a negative test within two days,” a graduating Yale student from Westport suggested on Thursday as she and a friend moved out of their apartment.

Then it dawned on her, or maybe I mentioned it: Out here in the real world, tests aren’t as easy to come by as they are on university campuses such as Yale’s. In fact, my host at the Hanukkah latkes dinner for five had asked that we all get tested that day — only to find there were no instant tests to be had in our large town.

This is awkward stuff. If a host finds out a guest is unvaccinated, is he or she obligated to share that with all the other guests? By name? I found mixed opinions on that one.

“Probably,” said Anthony McDonald, executive director of the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, “just to make sure that everyone actually feels comfortable. Because I also may not feel comfortable myself.”

After a moment of thought, he added, “So, I’d probably have to say to that person, ‘I don’t think you can come.’ A tough position to take.”

I raised all these uncomfortable scenarios with McDonald and Brian Phelps, owner of Toad’s Place, the storied New Haven music venue. Both places require vaccination or proof of a negative test.

“It’s practically a party when you have a show at your place. It’s a party, practically, when I have 1,400 people sitting in my theater, all side-by-side,” McDonald said to Phelps. “And we do serve drinks, and we say to please keep your mask on, in between those sips.”

Private parties are a different matter; rules can be stricter as to who can come but less strict as to behavior. Phelps, for his part, would want to know if anyone wasn’t vaccinated. “No question, then you’re gonna stay on the other side of the room,” he quipped, stepping away from us to make the point.

Certainly a guest can ask the host, although a few people I asked said no, even that isn’t okay. “If you’re invited to a party, you just have to assume the risk,” said the mother of one of the recently minted Yale grads, who lives in New Jersey. “I’m not going to live in a box and stay home.”

Brenda Kupchick, the Fairfield first selectwoman, has an immunocompromised family member at home and isn’t stepping out much. “I don’t think it’s probably smart right now,” she said, “to have large parties.”

That’s grown truer lately, as the number of people in Connecticut hospitals with COVID-19 has doubled in December to 736 as of Friday. We’re seeing NFL and NBA games canceled, too.

“Usually there’s all these parties, parties, parties. There’s not a lot of parties,” Kupchick said. “People who aren’t vaccinated are prolonging this pandemic.”

The town of Fairfield did have its annual party for employees this past Monday but it wasn’t well attended. The $25-per-person event did not require a vaccination to attend. “It was small and people were spread out,” Kupchick said, adding that the town does not mandate vaccinations for its staff.

Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief medical officer at Yale New Haven Health, recently hosted a gathering of about 16 to 18 guests in his house — all vaccinated by request — and kept windows open despite cool weather. He likens a vaccination rule at parties to controlling drunken driving.

“If you’re the host of a party and you see somebody that’s a little tipsy, don’t you have the obligation to take their keys away? I think this is the same thing,” Balcezak said.

On Wooster Street in New Haven, I spoke with John Gaetano, who wore a mask outdoors as he waited for a lunch order at Sally’s Apizza. He and his wife had COVID-19 recently, he said, and they’re not going to parties this month. If he did go, he said he would not expect a host to tell everyone about the vaccination status of guests.

“I’m being careful because, out of respect for others,” Gaetano said — though he said he’s not vaccinated. “If you’re healthy and you don’t have an underlying issue, your own body’s immune system will fight it off.”

That’s not the view of state Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a physician who has treated many COVID patients as a lung specialist. Anwar, speaking with me early in December, said he would not let unvaccinated people come to a party if he were the host. If anyone had not had a booster shot, they should wear a mask and stand at a distance while eating.

Like Balcezak, he’s worried about the health of unvaccinated people, not himself, at parties. So he said he’d wear a mask if he found out anyone was unvaccinated — removing it only if that person were comfortable.

That is excellent COVID holiday party etiquette in a year that’s shaping up badly for New Year’s celebrations. “Hopefully we can get back to normal sometime in 2022,” said McDonald, at the Shubert.