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Is it safe to attend the company holiday party this year?

Most Americans still making holiday plans despite Omicron variant
Most Americans still making holiday plans despite Omicron variant 08:39

It's peak company holiday party season, and there are more variables to consider this year compared to last, when most events were either cancelled outright or relegated to virtual schmoozing. 

Now, some employers are eager to reprise the annual tradition in person, emboldened by COVID-19  vaccine requirements and other safety protocols that can make smaller gatherings seem relatively low-risk. So with virus rates seeing a winter spike and the Omicron variant making an appearance, what will holiday parties circa 2021 look like, and is it safe to attend?

Although holiday parties are back, they'll differ markedly from pre-pandemic celebrations. If not, they aren't safe, health experts told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said there are precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk. She suggested the following safety checklist for in-person events this December: 

  • Make sure everyone is fully vaccinated and boosted if they are eligible. "That is the first really important step," Althoff said. 
  • Administer rapid antigen tests before guests enter the event. "A lot of things can be done to make sure there isn't an unwelcome guest in the name of the COVID-19 virus," she said. "Tests can be taken, and within 15 minutes you have information about whether or not you have possible infections."
  • If food is offered, make it minimal and if possible station it outdoors. 
  • Finally, mask up if it makes you more comfortable. "Good ventilation, outdoor environments and masking are precautions that can play a big role," Althoff said. 

Fewer virtual gatherings

In November, nearly 27% of companies said they planned to hold some kind of year-end event, up from just 5% last year, according to a survey from. Challenger, Gray & Christmas. At the time, another 22% weren't sure of their plans. 

"There appears to be even more uncertainty surrounding company parties this year than last," said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at the outplacement and executive coaching firm. "Most companies simply canceled the event in 2020, likely hoping it would be a one-year issue. Now that we're entering the second pandemic holiday season, companies want to celebrate and connect their teams, but are not quite sure how to do it."

Indeed, vaccines have made in-person gatherings less risky, while by now Zoom has lost whatever novelty it once had. Only 7% of respondents reported they would hold virtual events this year, down from 17% in 2020. 

A smaller share of companies — 35% compared to 55% last year — won't hold an event at all this year, according to the Challenger survey. And 5% of respondents said they would ignore COVID-19 altogether and hold events without any precautions, compared to just over 1% who reported the same in 2020. 

Inside look at FedEx processing center amid holiday season 03:09

Facebook parent Meta Platforms is one company sticking with a virtual event. In 2019, some 6,000 people attended the company's New York holiday bash, which was complete with a DJ and dancing. This year, Meta's New York office party will be completely virtual and instead include performances by local actors and musicians, according to a company spokesperson. There is a charity component, too: All funds raised will go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. 

Virtual events that are shorter and require little employee participation are most popular, according to Tal Brodsky, who oversees business development at Thriver, a marketplace for corporate services including culture building and virtual event planning. 

"When it comes to the virtual events and holiday parties, companies are hosting companywide events that are short in duration, like 30 to 60 minutes, and what's required of employees is more passive. They can join and watch a comedian or some sort of entertainment, but it's not every interactive because it's awkward to facilitate for a large group of people," he said. 

Some companies that have decided to forego parties are using the cost savings to give employees gifts instead. 

"Gifting is a big piece of the holidays this year," Brodsky said. "Companies are spending on unique employee gifts and supporting small businesses, plus branded gifts with a company's logo, to foster a sense of community and connection to the company."

Among virtual parties, winter holiday trivia events, virtual escape rooms and crafts classes are most popular, according to Thriver.

"You can have a safe party"

Still, experts say in-person holiday parties can be safe if the appropriate precautions are taken, including requiring that attendees are vaccinated, testing before the event and other measures. 

"Of course we have testing and testing works," said CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus. "You can devise an antigen test program for the whole company for a holiday party, you can have the holiday party outdoors and have everyone wear a mask except when they eat."

"It goes without saying that everyone at the party needs to be vaccinated and boosted if they're eligible. If they are not, they should not come to the party," Agus added. 

U.S. COVID-19 cases continue to spike as Omicron is found in 27 states 02:09

For employers, and given the ever-changing nature of the virus, hosting a party at the office is wiser than committing to a venue that requires a deposit.

"More companies are booking events in their offices, because they want control if the headcount changes if a bunch of employees don't feel comfortable going or with Omicron they need to change the date," Thriver's Brodsky said. 

Big bashes are out

By contrast, big blowout holiday bashes are a relic of the past, Amanda Ma, CEO of Innovate Marketing Group in Pasadena, California, whose clients include include TikTok, YouTube and East West Bank.

"Eighty percent of our events are still virtual, and the 20% that are in-person are mostly outdoors," Ma told CBS MoneyWatch.

Bigger companies are also mostly hosting smaller events, often broken down by department. 

"Instead of us doing one big event, we're doing 34 individual department events for them," Ma said. "If the 2,000-person events are happening, they are online."

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