Family Gatherings During COVID

Gathering during COVID

In early August, my husband and I had 17 people from five different states stay at our home for our annual week-long family gathering. The prospect of my family, especially my husband’s 97-year old mother, gathering during COVID under one roof for a week scared the hell out of me. 

My close friends who are familiar with our “Robotti Weekend” asked me what we were going to do. We’ve been hosting it in our weekend house in New Jersey for more than 30 years. Last year we had 25 for the long weekend. Over time we’ve converted attic space and side porches into bedrooms. We recently divided the garage (located far from the house in the backyard) in half to create a “bunkhouse” with two bunk beds. 

Several friends suggested that we cancel this year, others baldly stated they would not take that risk. However, there were reasons to think the risk would be low. Mainly, all family members are very healthy with no underlying conditions. Four of us are in our 60’s and all the others (except for Bob’s mother) were 55 and under. Legally, New Jersey allows indoor gatherings up to 25 people. Even with precautions, though, I knew that preventing close contact would be nearly impossible, and we were taking a risk. 

Because of the pandemic, several family members opted out for safety. A niece and her husband with their 4-week-old baby stayed home, another niece and her husband came for three days but stayed home after attending a wedding with 100 people on Friday night. Bob’s older sister and her partner stayed home out of general cautiousness. 

The family zoomed together to discuss a plan. My suggestion to cancel was booed. (I had the feeling that the gathering would happen at our house with or without me.) All family members agreed to take a COVID-19 test a week before arriving and severely limiting out-of-home activities before visiting. 

This precaution was the least effective of all options. Not only do tests have the risk of false negatives (indicating one does not have COVID-19 when one does), but the test only measures that moment in time. The moment one walks out of the testing center door, any proof of non-infection is invalid. And then there is the issue of how long it takes to get the test results. 

Bob and I were tested on July 23, exactly a week before the family arrived. The first problem was that we had to travel to and from New York from New Jersey to get tested, as NJ only administers tests if you show symptoms. We were already breaking our quarantine agreement post-test. The second major issue: I didn’t get my results until August 4th, the day my family left, and Bob’s results arrived on August 5th. If either Bob or I had tested positive, then we would have exposed our family.  

So what good is COVID-19 testing in our situation? No use at all. Without the certainty of quick results and follow-up contact tracing, I see no reason for anyone to get tested for the coronavirus. The treatment if you get sick with COVID-19 or a cold or the flu is the same — bedrest, eat well, stay away from others. If you are sick enough to go to the hospital, they’ll test you then. 

Now that Robotti Weekend is two weeks in the rearview, I can exhale and say everyone — from my 97-year old mother-in-law to the youngest at 11 — is still healthy. For those facing similar gathering challenges, here are the steps we took to keep us safe and social. 

Our primary goal was to gather outdoors as often as possible. Meals were all outside on a large back porch with an awning. When it came to greeting family members, Bob, our adult son Dan and I held back with a loving wave, but all others hugged and kissed. 


The family was in close contact during the day, and forget getting the kids to wear masks when playing games or cards. At least during the night, we were able to keep family “pods” together which limited some viral exposure. 


We placed disinfectant spray in each bathroom to be used each time. Also, we replaced hand towels with paper towels and ensured that all bath towels stayed in the bathrooms. 

Every few hours, I sprayed down all the bathrooms as an extra cleaning. 


Possibly the biggest surprise for our family was my allowing (requiring) the use of disposable plates, cups, and utensils. Each year the family petitions me to let them use throw away plates, and I never like to. But this year, I wanted to avoid the cross-contamination from setting and clearing the table and filling and unloading the dishwasher. The rule for 2020 was to serve and clean up after yourself.

Breakfast and lunch were a cook-and-serve yourself mandate. Group cooking with multiple chefs was outlawed. For dinner, we brought food in. Regardless of the meal, everyone touched only their own food.

We were lucky with the weather and spent nearly every day at the beach and every night on the back porch. It was great not to have to cook or wash dishes and the “to-go” coffee cups were a big hit. 

It was a wonderful family week — now that I know that everyone is healthy still. But Thanksgiving is right around the corner! 

Suzanne B. Robotti

Suzanne Robotti founded MedShadow Foundation in 2012. Learn more about Su and her mission.

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