The problem with underestimating how much people want to be together

Despite all of the media focus on holiday travel, this pandemic has been shaped more by where people need to be than by where they want to be. While many Americans were busy reprimanding one another for Thanksgiving dinners, people quietly continued to travel for other reasons: Truckers delivered goods around the country; migrant workers kept farms going. The moral outrage about people enjoying themselves during a pandemic is a distraction from where that outrage would be more useful: in pressuring governments to protect the marginalized populations that are most at risk, even when they are less visible—and provoke less indignation—than a crowd of holiday travelers sitting in an airport and hoping for the best.

As the winter holidays approach and cases continue to surge across the country, people need clear and consistent messaging about the very high risks of travel and gathering. And, just like safer-sex education, guidance for this holiday season must also include nuanced information about how people can protect themselves if they travel to that Christmas dinner anyway: minimizing contacts and testing before and afterward, keeping gatherings small, driving instead of flying, masking when indoors or close to others, meeting outdoors if feasible, and increasing ventilation when outdoors isn’t an option. Giving any risk-mitigation advice might seem imprudent when the dangers of social contact are so acute, but adherence to public-health recommendations is never universal, and everyone needs access to information and tools to stay safer.