Julie, who is 38 and lives in North Carolina, considers herself, her husband and their two children “person zero with COVID.” Motivated by studies on the possible long-term effects of COVID-19 on the body, they focus their lives on not contracting the virus. That means avoiding enclosed spaces where people won’t be masked, wearing masks outside often, and looking for providers who still take precautions, like wearing masks and using air purifiers. Basically, says Julie, this is fine. “There’s nothing we don’t do,” she says—they just do it all with high-quality masks. (Like others interviewed for this story, Julie asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family’s privacy.)
The holidays, however, present some challenges. Julie’s relatives are no longer willing to take the security measures that would allow her family to feel comfortable gathering with them in person, she says, so her family will celebrate by “making better food” than usual and eating it at home. The hardest part, she says, is watching family members who were once willing to self-isolate for 14 days before visiting now abandon the precaution, knowing it means Julie and her family won’t be comfortable joining the festivities.
“We don’t skip; we’re shut out,” says Julie. If her relatives were willing to wear good masks inside and eat outside, she says she would be “mostly” comfortable with them getting together. But that readiness — so strong in 2020 — has disappeared so far.
Other people who are cautious about COVID are likely facing similar disagreements with loved ones. Holiday celebrations are returning to pre-pandemic norms, according to a Harris Poll collected for TIME. This year, 72% of American adults plan to celebrate the holidays with at least one person outside their household – down from 81% before the pandemic, but up from 66% last year. About 45% plan to travel during this year’s holiday season, compared to 58% before the pandemic and 42% last year.
But even as much of the country moves away from pandemic-era policies, many families still plan to spend the holidays huddled around Zoom screens and outdoor heat lamps, doing their best to take “a side dish and a gift with the holiday dinner, not the virus,” as says Claire, 39. About 55% of American adults said COVID-19 will affect their holiday plans, according to a TIME-Harris poll.Even among those who will gather in person with others, about a third plan to limit the size of their celebrations , while 12% said they would need masks or hold the event outdoors.
Claire and her husband, who live in the south, will do all of the above. They were careful about the spread of the disease even before the pandemic, since they have a four-year-old who was born prematurely and could experience serious complications from respiratory diseases. This holiday season, they’ll dress up and wear masks to celebrate on the patio at Claire’s in-laws’ house. For Thanksgiving dinner, they’ll eat in opposite corners of the patio before donning their masks again. If it is too cold to open presents outside on Christmas Day, they will exchange gifts and then return to their homes to unwrap them.
That’s the way they’ve been doing it since 2020, Claire says, but admits the system requires sacrifices. She’s not comfortable attending grandma’s big multi-family Thanksgiving dinner, and these days she mostly sees her friends and their kids via Zoom. But for Claire, the disadvantages pale in comparison to keeping her family healthy in the face of a virus that, for a group of people who contract it, can potentially lead to lifelong disability. “I’m in a situation where I can protect my child and protect us, and I’ll do whatever I can,” she says.
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Other families with risk factors are also trying hard to avoid the virus. Karen, who is 39 and lives in Tennessee, has had complications from viral illnesses for 22 years, including chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, since contracting mononucleosis as a teenager and never fully recovering. A common cold can put her in bed for six weeks. COVID-19, her doctor warned her in 2020, could be catastrophic for her health.
As the virus continues to spread, Karen, her husband and their toddler remain almost completely indoors, primarily going to medical appointments and outdoor activities such as bike rides, picnics and hikes. When friends come over, her family comes with them through the window. This means that large holiday gatherings will not be on the table for the foreseeable future.
“It was always very important to me to have an open house for everyone who had nowhere to go” during the holidays, Karen says. But these days, her door is closed to everyone except her husband’s parents, who live nearby and lead a similarly reclusive lifestyle.
Max, who is 26 and lives in New York, follows his parents’ example when it comes to the virus. His parents wear masks everywhere and avoid riskier environments, like restaurants and movie theaters, because COVID-19 can be serious for people in their age group. Max decided to spend Thanksgiving with his girlfriend’s family rather than his own to avoid worrying his parents about potential illness.
He may go home for the winter holidays, he says, because before then he will have more time for quarantine and testing. Max says he’d feel good about giving up those precautions if his parents didn’t ask for them anymore, but for now he’s happy to do what they’re comfortable with. “I understand the principle that riskier people make the rules,” he says.
Not everyone is so understanding. Kara Darling, 46, who lives in Delaware, is in the process of divorcing her husband because he was ready to “reintegrate” into society around the time vaccines started coming out, and she chose to stay very cautious about COVID by working at a distance, educating children at home and socializing only with those who are prepared to take strict precautions. Darling’s attitude is based on both her work as a practice and research manager at a clinic that treats people with complex conditions, which exposed her to the realities of living with Long COVID, and the fact that three of her children have overactive immune systems.
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“You’re grieving your plans and the reality you thought you were going to have and what you thought life was going to be like,” she says. “When you come to acceptance, then the question becomes, ‘Am I going to sit and mourn the existence of the life I wish I had, or am I going to turn away?'”
Dragi decided to turn around. She runs multiple Facebook groups for people who are “still suffering from COVID” — that is, still taking precautions against contracting the virus. She also organized regular outdoor gatherings for homeschoolers in her area and created a community ready to build new holiday traditions during the pandemic. Valentine’s Day cards and Halloween treats to families in her circle “still suffering from covid.” On Thanksgiving, they exchange homemade dishes and eat them together via Zoom. They leave gifts on porches for birthdays and honk their horns as they pass by to greet them.
Darling’s Thanksgiving will be small this year – just her household, her oldest son and her son’s girlfriend, cooking and eating together at home. (Darling’s son and his girlfriend don’t live with her, so she will avoid all unnecessary public activities, wear respirators and get tested multiple times in the 10 days before her arrival.) But outside the walls of her home, Darling has built bonds that help her get through the dark times.
“It’s about being part of a community,” she says. “We built a reliable family.”
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