ADVICE: How Can I Plan a Group Trip if Everyone Can’t Agree on COVID Safety?

With international travels still largely at a standstill, and a slew of intimidating regional travel restrictions that are constantly changing, families and groups of friends in the same bubble already face an added layer of challenges when planning a weekend getaway or holiday trip together. And then there’s the complex task of making everybody feel safe. While some travelers are extremely cautious and adhere to CDC guidelines to a tee, others merely follow them loosely. So what happens when people with different anxiety and comfort levels surrounding the pandemic come together for annual family reunions or a girls’ spa getaway?

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a Sonoma County-based clinical psychologist and the author of Joy From Fear, suggests families first assess the needs of their group, with the understanding that each trip will be different depending on who you’re traveling with. Because there’s almost always someone who spearheads the trip planning, Manly suggests this person first check-in with each member of the group to test the temperature of the environment and understand what guidelines each member has been following during quarantine.

“That person tries not to align with anybody, but almost takes the position of a mediator,” says Manly in a Zoom interview with Fodor’s. Whether the organizer reaches out via text or a phone call, “there’s nothing like being simple and direct and saying, ‘we’re planning a trip. Tell me about your social distancing needs. We really want to do our best to accommodate them.’”

Because there’s almost always someone who spearheads the trip planning, Manly suggests this person first check-in with each member of the group to test the temperature of the environment and understand what guidelines each member has been following during quarantine.

Following the initial assessment and learning the needs of the group, participating members can come together for a group discussion to establish trip expectations. “When it gets to anything that can be misconstrued or charged, it’s always better to do it face to face, even if it’s Zoom face to face, [so you can] read the person’s expressions. You can talk, you can assess [each other’s] body language, and even more important—you can clean up something,” Manly says.

Birmingham based Sheri Howell, who works at Medjet, an air medical transport and travel security membership program, joined 14 adults and four kids to celebrate her mother’s 82nd birthday in Little Pend Oreille Lakes just outside of Colville, Washington, at the end of July. Since Howell’s role at work requires her to be up to date with airline and travel policies surrounding the coronavirus, Howell served as the family’s organizer for this eight-day vacation and formed the rules, which included no hugging until everyone has showered and put on a clean set of clothes. “With COVID this year, that definitely warranted a conversation as to how we felt about visiting someone over the age of 80,” says Howell in a phone interview with Fodor’s.

With so many different opinions and disparate needs within one group, broaching a topic as sensitive as personal comfort and anxiety levels surrounding the pandemic might be overwhelming. But, Manly suggests family members “come to the discussion not expecting it to be difficult, but with the mindset that you all want [the vacation] to work and have a good time.”

It’s important to remember that not everyone’s going to be on the same page, so use CDC guidelines and advice from local health authorities as your baseline and understand how movable everyone is on their needs. While one sibling might suggest everybody gets tested before the family vacation, an uncle might advise each member to quarantine for two weeks prior to the trip. The way to create an open and judgment-free zone in which a serious conversation can remain harmonious is to validate each other’s needs and feelings, despite your own personal views. Each person must remember that they’re not the only one with needs, and “those on the more flexible end, sometimes that means deferring to the group with the highest needs,” says Manly. She adds, “we all have to work on being flexible and honoring each other’s needs and understand that for some, not being able to hug or share coffee cups really takes away the enjoyment for them.”

Photo by Mohau Mannathoko on Unsplash

It doesn’t mean that a family trip isn’t still possible if nobody’s willing to meet in the middle.

“Manage the situation in a way that we do our best to bring people to the middle ground, and for those who are outliers, doing their best to accommodate them, even if it means separating,” suggests Manly. In that instance, she recommends grouping family members and creating pods according to high and low needs. “That may mean two hotel rooms or two Airbnbs where people are not put with other people who are just not on the same page,” says Manly. She adds, “that way, members of each pod can do their own thing and meet up occasionally in a way that there’s low impact, like an outdoor hike where everybody agrees to wear masks for that time.” Manly suggests each pod can even create signs that say “entering mask zone” or “please social distance” and post them in their accommodation as a reminder to others. That way, the issue is separated from the personalities, and family members have a choice in whether or not they want to temporarily enter different pods and practice the appropriate precautions.

Howell admits her family trip took a fair bit of coordinating, especially because she traveled to Washington by plane from Birmingham, and her 22-year-old son flew in from New York City. She insisted on renting a car and driving to her mom’s instead of being picked up by her mom, as was the case in previous years. At her mom’s, Howell and her family spent time together playing card games and eating outdoors on the patio where there’s ample fresh air and space for social distancing. Each family member was cognizant of what they touched and incessantly washed their hands. “You just have to talk about [your comfort levels]. If somebody is far more paranoid than you are, you have to respect that, and you have to respect their feelings about that.” She adds, “you can’t force your own point of view or your own comfort level on somebody who is uncomfortable. That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s your family, and you love them. So you find ways to accommodate.”

For people who are generally more soft-spoken in group settings and reticent, Manly suggests approaching them with a question and a rating system, like “on a scale of 0 to 10, how comfortable are you sharing accommodation with 10 people who all have different social distancing needs?” The family member may find it easier to reveal their thoughts that way, instead of coming forward and stating that they’re uncomfortable sharing accommodation with someone who won’t take the test before coming on the trip.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

When it comes to keeping everyone accountable for taking their tests or quarantining before the trip, Manly notes that trust is a key factor because there’s no way to track the actions of each family member, though you can send reminders for getting tested or when quarantine begins.

Joanna Kaminski, a Manhattan-based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at NYC Therapy + Wellness and Clarity Therapy Online, suggests that much of the anxiety we’re feeling surrounding this pandemic comes from not knowing—not knowing what happens if we get infected, and not knowing what to do next. “It’s important to have a contingency plan. If we know what we need, then we feel much better because we won’t have anxiety thinking about the unknown,” says Kaminski in a Zoom interview with Fodor’s. Kaminski suggests families come up with a plan for in case someone gets sick on the trip by finding out where the nearest hospital is in your destination and having the number of your medical professional on hand.

When navigating this topic with friends, Manly suggests using the same general outlook. “But with friends, it can often be a lot easier. With family members, [it’s] a lot more complex because there’s so much history and odd dynamics.”

Above all, Manly says, “travel in 2020 and beyond will require us to be more flexible. It will require us to be more patient and more kind.”

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