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Planning a family reunion this year isn't easy, as we all struggle to find safe ways to see loved ones. Our family has had to get creative with hosting outdoor grandparent visits. There's even talk of a back porch Christmas tree. 

When making plans to get together, it's important to listen to the experts -- in some areas, health officials are recommending families not gather at all. But if, and when, it's safe for you to meet, here are a few ideas for planning a safer, more thoughtful family reunion.

 

 

 

Keep It Simple

 

This might not be the year for that giant reunion with dozens of family members. In addition to being safer, small gatherings have the advantage of more one-on-one time with each person. Is there something you've always wanted to do or a place you've always wanted to visit, but it wouldn't work with the whole crew? This might be the right time for that vacation idea! 

 

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Paddle boats are the ultimate social distancing activity. They kept our family members six feet apart, even when my kids tried their best to crash into everyone else's boats. Photo by Josie McCamish.

 

 

Find Your Own Space

 

Many people may consider sharing indoor air a no-go when it comes to avoiding germs, and wearing masks 24/7 with your loved ones would be a bummer too, so look for separate accommodations when planning your reunion.

We recently met up with my parents at a lovely state park and booked neighboring cabins for our stay. We each had our own indoor space, and we headed outdoors to visit and chat while the kids made leaf piles nearby. A friend told me she met her extended family at the beach after finding two rental houses next door to each other; they met outside each day to play in the waves. 

Renting an RV gives you the ultimate flexibility in family gatherings. If everyone else insists on staying at Aunt Petunia's and you hate to miss the fun, you can camp in the RV and join in on outdoor meals and activities. No RV but ready for adventure? Bring your tent!

 

 

For our recent family gathering, individual cabins provided room for everyone to spread out. We met outside for s'mores, hiking, and conversation. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

 

 

Play Outside

 

A silver lining of this year is the encouragement to stay outdoors. Make a list of safe, socially distanced activities for the whole family to enjoy outside. We rented paddle boats on our state park vacation; with members of the same household sitting together, we easily kept that important six-foot distance between boats. A bonfire with s'mores and family stories allowed everyone to chat and connect with plenty of distance between chairs.

Some traditional activities can be reinvented to be more germ-free. My boys have developed a soccer game where each family team must stay on their side of the field, kicking the ball long distances instead of hustling for the ball together. The kids' grandparents gave each grandchild their own copy of popular board games so they could mirror the play and facilitate distance playing. Battleship is an easy game to play six feet apart, but we've also played Ticket to Ride while duplicating the board on two separate tables. (Bonus: this also works over FaceTime and Zoom!).

 

 

Battleship is the perfect game to play across the patio. (Beware: Nine-year-olds are known to be board game sharks.) Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

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Prepare for the Weather

 

Of course, the main issue with outdoor reunions is the unpredictability of weather. Whatever you plan, have options in case of rain. You don't want to drive seven hours and then never actually see family because you're stuck in separate houses all day. Before our state park trip, I researched vacation options to find cabins with screened-in porches. This ensured we could meet and visit even in the rain, with the screens providing plenty of ventilation. A large picnic pavilion is a great choice for distancing between bigger households. 

Aside from the rain, cold is another threat to outdoor gatherings. But never fear -- you know those outdoor heaters restaurants use on their patios? They can bring warmth to your gathering as well! And don't forget the power of layers. As a southern girl, I never understood the appeal of long underwear until I spent hours wandering around German cities during winter.

 

Dress warmly, and you can enjoy family time without fearing the cold.

 

 

A gorgeous view, a private boat dock, and giant leaf piles made our family trip to Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park feel extra special. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

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Figure Out Food

 

The food. For many of us, it's the best part of family reunions, but in the time of coronavirus, it's problematic. While current studies haven't shown COVID transmission through food, there's concern about gathering closely in a buffet line or having serving utensils touched by multiple family members. 

The safer bets are to skip the meal and focus on visiting, or for each household to bring their own food. But if you simply must have some of Grandma's cake or Uncle Ron's barbeque, consider having just one person cut or dip individual servings and fill plates. If you're the one preparing or serving food, consider wearing a mask and gloves for extra caution and peace of mind. 

 

 

Avoid the buffet table by finding a local restaurant to prepare individual meals for each family member. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

 

 

 

Make a Back-Up Plan

 

Despite our best efforts, sometimes things just don't work out. (Trust the girl who was quarantined at home two weeks before Thanksgiving. Lucky for me, our COVID tests were negative and our outdoor celebration went on as planned.) Keep a backup plan handy in case of the unexpected. If your reunion gets canceled or you find yourself stuck at home, try to eat together over Zoom, share recipes via email, or gather virtually in Minecraft or Animal Crossing (at least your kids will love it!).

While we know this year is different from all the others, our families will look to us for how we deal with the change. We can complain and gripe, or we can use it as an opportunity to find new ways to have fun. I know which I'll choose. 

 

Christy Nicholson is a writer, editor, and recovering perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. When not traveling with family, she enjoys cozy days at home reading, gardening, making music, and wrangling two awesome kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about travel and sustainable living.

 

 

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