The holiday season looks different this year, but the desserts will still be as delicious as ever. If you’re hoping to leave a wide variety of treats for Santa and his reindeer crew (and you know, your family) without spending hours baking and buying different ingredients, you may be interested in a cookie exchange. But, can you have a safe cookie exchange during COVID? The answer is yes, according to Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, M.D., infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, but if this is an annual event, you may have to shake up your tradition to make the cookie exchange less risky this year.
If you’ve never participated, the basic idea of a cookie exchange is that you make a lot of one type of cookie (let’s say a dozen for every guest at the exchange, usually around eight people). You then package up each dozen separately and head to the cookie exchange, where you'll swap cookies with everyone, so you end up with eight different kinds of cookies at the end of the night.
This year, though, it's probably wise to make the cookie exchange a no-contact or virtual event. Dr. Anduar Vazquez says it's safe to drop off cookies in someone's mailbox or at their doorstep; she is not concerned with the virus living on the cookie tin itself, and as the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) notes, there is no evidence that the virus is foodborne or transmits via food, so the cookies themselves thankfully should be safe. With that said, Dr. Andujar Vazquez adds, "the key is to always wash hands, which will also prevent food-borne illness." You should wash your hands well before you bake, of course, but also before and after dropping off the treats.
Whether or not it's reasonable to do an in-person cookie exchange depends on how seriously other guests have taken social distancing, and what the infection rate looks like in your area, (there are tons of online resource you can use, but I find this map from John Hopkins University & Medicine easy to read, with up-to-date info by county).
If you do decide to do an in-person event, "I recommend doing it outdoors, if weather permits, with everyone wearing masks," Dr. Andujar Vazquez tells Romper. "If masks need to be taken off to drink or eat, remember to be at least 6-feet apart. It would also be a good idea to have hand washing stations and plan a short event to minimize contact time. Definitely make clear to guests that they shouldn’t come if they feel sick or have any symptoms whatsoever."
Even with safety precautions, there's no way to say an in-person event is totally risk-free right now. The best (and safest) option may be, "to send the cookies via mail and then schedule a Zoom cookie exchange party," Dr. Andujar Vazquez says. If you do a virtual party, you could go all out packaging the cookies so the presentation is really spectacular and fun. This way, you can still get to see your friends and sip something bubbly "together," but you're warm and toasty in your house, you can pick the Christmas music you actually like, and there won't be any guilt or fear. Plus, no one will know you're wearing stretchy pants with a festive shirt so you can eat as many of the cookies as you'd like.
Gabriela Andujar Vazquez M.D., Infectious Disease Physician and Associate Hospital Epidemiologist,Tufts Medical Center