As families begin their preparations for holiday gatherings this fall and winter, many are wondering if in-person gatherings will return following a year that saw many turn virtual.
Chicago health officials are preparing to release guidance for celebrating Halloween this week, but beyond that, the city's top doctor said it's hard to predict, though she admitted she is "a little worried."
"I'm not anticipating, you know, seeing an enormous surge like [last year] but I am a little worried," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. "I think what was driving that was us moving inside, frankly. We know there's a reason that influenza season happens every, you know, late fall and winter here, and we could see that with COVID."
Arwady said that she's confident that, if metrics continue on their current trend, gatherings involving fully-vaccinated individuals will likely happen, but it all depends.
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"Are you here in Chicago when we're under pretty good control? Are you going somewhere else where we might be in less control? And I know it's hard to not have that full answer, but it wouldn't be irresponsible of me to say, 'I know what's going to be happening for sure at the end of November or at the end of December,' you know?" Arwady said. "We'll have a better sense in early November of, where, you know, where things are and where things are going and I think, you know, if we get to mid November and generally things are relatively calm, you know, I am certainly way more optimistic about the ability to have safe family gatherings than I was last year."
She added that vaccinations for children under the age of 12 could begin in the coming weeks or months, which would make holiday gatherings even safer, but they might not come in time for Thanksgiving.
"We are likely, maybe going to be able to start vaccinating 5-to-11-year olds early November - Pfizer, you know - and we'll have to see for the kids but for the adults, it was on a three-week space schedule so you're talking about, you know, right around Thanksgiving is when kids have the potential to have been vaccinated, but then there's technically two weeks post that second dose," Arwady said. "So, from an opportunity of having kids vaccinated, you know, I'm more confident in Christmas there than I am Thanksgiving."
So should you be worried ahead of Thanksgiving?
"If all of the adults are vaccinated in general, you're being careful about it... you know, if Thanksgiving were in two weeks I'd say no problem, we'd be talking about how to be, you know, limiting that risk, and we'll keep you updated as we, you know, as we get closer," Arwady said. "But, yeah, that's how I'm thinking about it and we will we will keep you up to date there. Go ahead and, you know, make some tentative plans would be what I would say, but recognize that it's possible guidance could have to shift. But I'm feeling reasonably optimistic right at the moment."
CDPH told NBC Chicago Monday that the city "should have an updated Halloween guidance later this week."
"CDPH does follow the CDC and recommend people consult them if they have questions in the meantime," the department said in a statement.
The update comes just after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appeared to have released updated guidance over the weekend for those looking to celebrate the holiday season safely.
But the portion of the agency's website reflecting holiday guidance, refreshed on Friday, was taken down on Monday.
"The content is in the process of being updated by CDC to reflect current guidance ahead of this holiday season," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement. "The page had a technical update on Friday, but doesn’t reflect the CDC’s guidance ahead of this upcoming holiday season. CDC will share additional guidance soon."
Chicago health experts have said that Halloween is likely to be closer to normal this year, but some precautions will remain in place.
"You could certainly use your candy chute if you felt like you need to, but I think there are a lot of other good options this year," said Dr. Julie Holland, a pediatrician with the Chicagoland Children’s Health Alliance.
She recommends families stay socially distant and remain in small groups. She encourages adults who are handing out candy to wear a mask and consider stepping outside the house to pass out candy.
If children are outside, Dr. Holland said kids, even unvaccinated ones, can wear their Halloween masks instead of face coverings if they stay socially distant. Families, however, should avoid indoor, unmasked parties.
"We don't want people congregating indoors, eating and drinking. That, we know, is a big risk factor for COVID,” Dr. Holland said.
Dr. Holland said outdoor activities such as Halloween parades, apple picking, corn mazes and haunted trails are a perfectly safe way to celebrate.
Chicago had already announced the return of some of the city's popular in-person holiday traditions last month.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that in-person holiday festivities would return this year, beginning with Halloween.
According to the mayor's office and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Halloween community events will return citywide.
In addition, winter traditions will return at Millennium Park, including ice skating and the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, which will be held on Nov. 19.
Last year, the Christmas tree lighting ceremony was conducted virtually and the Millennium Park McCormick Tribune Ice Rink closed for the season.
Illinois' health department has not responded to requests for comment.