With the U.S. setting a new, devastating record of more than 3,000 people dead from COVID-19 in a single day this week, American women say they’re planning on social distancing this holiday season. Men, on the other hand, say they are getting ready for New Year’s parties.
Those are some of the findings of a new TIME/Harris Poll survey of Americans’ holiday plans conducted in the midst of record-high U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations, which have pushed many health care systems to the brink. The results paint a grim picture. A large share of Americans are planning to attend holiday celebrations with extended family or ring in the new year in-person with friends. One in four Americans has plans to travel for Christmas, and one in five is traveling for New Year’s—choices that in this horrific year have the potential to exacerbate an outbreak already spreading out of control in much of the country.
The recent Thanksgiving holiday has already seeded a spike in COVID-19 cases, filling intensive care units in hospitals around the country. A Christmas surge could be even worse, according to Dec. 7 comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert. For his part, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is leading by example. “For the first time in more than 30 years, I’m not spending the Christmas holidays with my daughters,” Dr. Fauci said during a CBS News health conference this week.
Many other Americans are also choosing to stay home this season, both to keep themselves and their families safe, and to do their part to try and head off a broader holiday coronavirus spike. That’s in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has asked Americans to consider modifying their holiday plans to tamp down viral spread. In some areas, residents may be curbing their in-person celebrations or staying home entirely whether they like it or not. In much of Oregon, for example, gatherings are limited to a maximum of six people. Much of California came under a new stay-at-home order Dec. 7, while in North Carolina, residents are required to stay at home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. starting the evening of Dec. 11.
But even with those sacrifices, the overall picture isn’t good. 44% of U.S. adults told TIME and Harris Poll that they’re planning to attend in-person Christmas celebrations, and 30% plan to celebrate New Year’s with friends or family outside their household.
American men in particular say they’re planning to throw caution to the wind. According to the survey, nearly twice as many men (27%) say they are planning to travel for New Year’s this year as compared to women (15%). About one in three men plans to travel for Christmas, compared to one in five women. Men are also more likely to be planning to meet with others outside their households over both holidays this year (50% vs. 39% for Christmas, and 37% vs. 23% for New Year’s).
There’s a particularly stark disparity in holiday plans between early middle-aged men and women. More than six in 10 men aged 35-44 say they are attending New Year’s get-togethers. Only 27% of women in the same age group say they have made such plans.
Young people are also making riskier holiday plans during the pandemic. 38% of Americans aged 18-34 plan to travel for Christmas this year, compared to just 17% of those 55-64 and 8% of those 65 and older. More than half of 18-34 year olds are planning to attend Christmas get-togethers, and 43% say they’ll be hanging out with friends or relatives in-person for New Year’s. Meanwhile, less than a third (31%) of those 65 and up plan to see others outside their household for Christmas, and only 13% are seeing others for New Year’s.
Even though older folks aren’t traveling in high numbers, the fact that a relatively high number of them are attending Christmas gatherings, combined with the high numbers of young people traveling for Christmas, presents a worrying possibility: that many young people are heading out of town to visit older relatives, who are more vulnerable to severe COVID-19.
There’s also a partisan split in Americans’ holiday planning. More than half of conservatives (52%) say they plan to attend Christmas gatherings beyond their households, compared to just over a third of liberals (36%). More conservatives than liberals plan to show up at New Year’s get-togethers, too, but the disparity is smaller, at 34% to 29%, respectively. And more conservatives (29%) are planning to travel for Christmas compared to liberals (23%), though more liberals (23%) than conservatives (20%) say they are heading out of town for New Year’s.
With cases across the country surging, the safest option for Americans is to avoid getting together with family in person. Those who insist on gathering with others should at least take health precautions like social distancing during any visits, and they should quarantine and get tested for COVID-19 beforehand and afterwards. Still, many public-health experts, lawmakers and other officials are begging Americans to keep their guard up for just a few more months, as the country stands just days away from the beginning of mass vaccination programs.
“Wear masks for just 100 days,” President-elect Joe Biden said in a Dec. 8 address. “It’s a patriotic act. It won’t be the end of our efforts, but it’s a necessary and easy beginning.”
Methodology: Harris Poll and TIME conducted the survey of Americans’ holiday plans between Dec. 4 and Dec. 7, recruiting participants through email, text messages and alerts within apps, and using variable message text in order to reach a diverse selection of respondents. Details of the survey were not included in the invitation in order to eliminate self-selection bias.