The Pandemic Dampens the Holiday Season

COVID doesn’t take a holiday.

Vanessa Joy Domingo

Last year, who would have thought the 2020 Holiday season would need to be celebrated differently? For the past eight months, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Six feet apart, no hugs or kisses, wash your hands and sanitize them, wear your mask, virtual school, virtual business meetings, no fairs, festivals or large scale celebrations, no work for those in the hospitality industry, no revenues for business owners who service tourists. Sadly, that’s been the norm for the last eight months and who knows how long it will last.

Residents of Maui were affected by clusters at Maui Memorial Hospital, Roselani Place, and Hale Makua—facilities caring for the elderly and the ill. Many thought social spread was restricted to O‘ahu and the mainland. Many started to let their guard down and sadly, Lana‘i’s residents became affected through social gathering.

Dr Errol Buntuyan

“As the Holiday Celebration season is upon us, we must still remember that we are in a pandemic with rising COVID cases in our country,” said Dr. Errol Buntuyan, who is Board Certified in Family Medicine and has been practicing for twenty years, with the last thirteen years at Kaiser Permanente’s Maui Lani Clinic. “The most recent Lāna‘i outbreaks have affected the Filipino community with gatherings surrounding a funeral event. Our prayers for a quick recovery go out to them.” Buntuyan, who is also president of the Philippine Association of Maui Doctors, cautioned “On Maui, we need to do everything we can to ensure that we do not have the same outbreak here in our own community. We can protect each other from COVID exposure by following certain guidelines when we are planning to host or attend a Holiday gathering.” [See “Six Suggestions from Dr. Buntuyan” informational sidebar]

Dr. Nicole Apoliona

“As tempting as the holidays may be to gather with your family and friends, it is not the time to let your guard down,” said Dr. Nicole Apoliona, who is Board Certified in Family Medicine and medical director of Kula Hospital for the past eleven years. “Gatherings outside of your household members have proven to be a high-risk activity. We have seen evidence of this in social situations, such as parties and funerals where COVID has spread to multiple people. Heading into the holidays we need to adjust how we celebrate. Try to keep just to your immediate household or do a virtual party on ZOOM. If you want to host a larger gathering, do it all outdoors, maintain physical distancing of at least six feet within your own household, especially when eating, wear masks, sanitize your hands, and don’t have a buffet but try to use bentos or pre-set plate lunches. And don’t forget that only one gloved person should be reaching into the cooler for drinks.”

April and RJ Domingo with baby Stella plan to make Christmas extra special this year, within the proper COVID-19 protocols.
Photo courtesy April Domingo
Family gatherings with April and RJ Domingo used to include all of the clan who could attend.
Photo courtesy April Domingo

April Oandasan Domingo will miss holding family close during the holidays. “Being Filipina and one that lives in Hawai‘i, I’m a very intimate person. Whenever I see friends or family, it’s natural for me to give a big hug or a kiss on the cheek even more so during the holidays because I love spreading Christmas love and cheer. Because of COVID, I can no longer do that without fear of contracting the virus and possibly exposing it to kids and the rest of my family.”

Domingo clearly understands things need to be different this year. “The entire world will be experiencing a very different holiday season this year,” she says. “2020 has been a roller coaster ride of cataclysmic events. I am thankful that the COVID virus has not affected any of my family members or friends and that they are still here on this earth, safe and sound. But the virus has affected the way we will celebrate this season. My family will still gather for the holidays but it will just be our immediate families. We won’t have the luxury to invite our extended families or our friends. It will be a much quieter holiday season this time. We won’t be able to hug, kiss or sit very close but we will still have each other’s company from across the table or through facetime. I am extremely thankful that although we can’t all technically be together we still have advanced technology to bring us close.”

Jeny Bissell, RN

“Holiday celebrations can continue but be mindful that we are still under a public health emergency,” said Jeny Bissell, a public health nurse with the State of Hawaii Department of Health. “Influenza, common cold, and many other respiratory illnesses are also upon us on top of COVID. We must continue to be vigilant and avoid ‘super-spreader’ events. A gathering of five or less is okay, stay in your bubble (eating, sleeping under the same roof) and wear a mask (covering your nose and mouth) if you are not actively eating and drinking.”

Bissell shared a bulletin from the State Department of Health which included a response to the question “What are you doing differently for the holidays this year” from Janelle: “Our family, like many others, looks forward to the large multi-family holiday gatherings each year. We especially look forward to traditional specialties from each family. On Thanksgiving, there’s aunty’s mac salad, cuz’s homemade poke, brother-in-law’s lup cheong mochi stuffing, pumpkin crunch, etc. There’s usually seven different desserts alone. It’s crazy but normal for many families! Since we cannot get together this year, I thought we’d organize a Drive-by Thanksgiving. We could designate a drop off house where one person from each family will bring their specialty dish and pick up the other dishes from the other families and take their haul home to feed their household. Takes a little coordination but then everyone can still feel connected to each other and still be safer apart. Those potluck apps work well.”

How can we continue to serve Lechon at family gatherings during this pandemic?
Photo: Vanessa Domingo

Being creative during this holiday season is a must. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t celebrate together like past years but it’s opened up the doors of new traditions,” said Domingo who knows that because of COVID, celebrating will involve a smaller celebration with just her, her husband RJ and children—Stella, Leo, and Teddy. “Because of how sad this year has been I’m going to make it extra special for my kids by decorating our cottage more than I have in the past. I want it to look like Santa lives in our cottage with us. I’ll make sure to schedule extra Christmas crafts, Christmas baking, watch all the Christmas movies and shows I’ve watched as a kid and much, much more. I want my kids to know that just because the world is a little different doesn’t mean life stops. We simply need to adjust and celebrate life in different ways.”

Dr. Apoliona notes the Filipino community in Hawai‘i is disproportionately affected by COVID with 22% of cases affecting Filipinos who constitute 16% of the state’s population. Now that hotels are reopening, she’s afraid of the higher exposures from co-employees. “Returning to work and social gatherings are times of higher risk. When you return to work, you are spending time with many people outside your household. We have found in hospitals and nursing homes in Hawai‘i and across the country that break rooms and car-pooling are situations where COVID is spread. The basic rules apply all the time: wear a mask, keep six feet apart and visit outdoors or make sure there is good ventilation (windows open). At Kula Hospital, we encourage everyone to take breaks and eat outside as much as possible. Break rooms are limited to one-to-two people at a time for proper distancing. We keep the windows open. For car-pooling with people outside your household, everyone in the car should wear a mask and the windows should be open at least partially.” Dr. Apoliona suggests following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if one is planning a party or attending one. [See “Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” sidebar]

Jan Paa family gathering.
Photo courtesy Jan Paa ‘Ohana

Jeanice “Jan” Paa and her family are used to having large family gatherings over the holidays. “It’s always been a family tradition to get together on Thanksgiving and Christmas for lunch and dinner with our large family. There’s lots of traditions we share during the holidays. Our family is really close and we love spending time with each other. It’s a tradition to cook our best dish and desserts and play games for bragging rights in the family. It’s always a joy and we have lots of fun!”

Paa reflects on the one thing that she will miss during the COVID-affected holidays. “The negative side is not being able to hug and kiss our kūpuna and not being able to get together as much as we used to. On the bright side, we get to spend a lot of quality time with the household in our ‘bubble,’” says Paa. “COVID-19 will change the way we celebrate with the family but it will not change the good food and great gifts that our family share. We make sure to keep our kūpuna safe! We will celebrate responsibly!”

Sadly, there are still some in Maui’s Filipino community that plan to celebrate exactly the same way as in past celebrations without any adjustments, claiming this too shall pass. Some are thinking, maybe they’ll have a ZOOM party.

“We need to support each other during the good times, such as the holidays and also through the difficult times like funerals but still be careful—all the same rules of masks and physical distancing apply because remember COVID doesn’t take a holiday,” said Dr. Apoliona. “It is so hard not to hug those people you love but it would be so much harder to know you might have spread infection to them.”

Dr. Buntuyan understands what each family is going through but cautions: “We must continue to protect our Filipino community on Maui. We have done a tremendous job so far in limiting our cases of COVID and we must continue with our amazing efforts to keep each other safe. Taking these precautions when we celebrate our holidays may seem foreign and a daunting task. These are unprecedented times that we live in. The last eight months have changed how we interact, socialize and communicate with each other. The desire to spend in person time to hug and be close to our relatives and loved ones during the holiday season is overwhelming. We can certainly be creative with our holiday gathering planning and still have a safe and wonderful time with those that we love.”

Vanessa Joy Domingo is a graduate of Maui High School and is employed with the County of Maui—Department of Management, IT Services and Coldwell Banker as a Realtor. She hopes everyone celebrates safely during the holidays and wishes everyone a holiday season full of love and hope.
Assistant Editor Alfredo G. Evangelista contributed to this story.