Hold a holiday office party? SouthCoast businesses undecided about second COVID Christmas

·7 min read

NEW BEDFORD — Holiday office parties are slowly making a comeback this year. However, some employers are still on the fence about office holiday parties when it comes to COVID-19 safety and concerns around liability.

“It's not close to what it was, prior to the pandemic, but it is a heck of a lot better than it was last year,” said Charlie Fellows, general manager of Lafrance Hospitality.

The company owns restaurants around the SouthCoast including Bittersweet Farms, White’s of Westport and Merrill’s on the Waterfront.

“The smaller groups are doing Christmas parties, but the bigger ones, unfortunately, not this year again, I still think they don’t feel safe,” he added.

Employers are still 'on-the-fence' about office holiday parties when it comes to COVID-19 safety and concerns around liability.
Employers are still 'on-the-fence' about office holiday parties when it comes to COVID-19 safety and concerns around liability.

Fellows says past clients such as banks and hospitals haven’t booked any venues again. However, offices with smaller-sized staff have been booking tables for their holiday shows.

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“We've got a lot of small groups jumping in on the party that we’re throwing,” Fellows said.

In December 2020, only 23% of companies hosted holiday gatherings, down from 76% in 2019, according to a Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey. Roughly 3 out of 4 of those companies offered virtual parties instead.

This year, according to a survey from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, many Americans are still feeling cautious when it comes to holiday parties — with half surveyed saying they would require vaccination status for friends and family.

Out of the 2,042 adults polled nationwide, 51% would ask partygoers to wear masks when not eating or drinking.

“We appreciate the importance to people, individually and to company morale, to be able to celebrate the December holidays,” said Dr. Martin Fogle, chief medical officer for PrimaCARE in Fall River.

“But we have to be cognizant of the realities of COVID-19 in our community.”

Canceling annual holiday party again

Fogle says that at PrimaCARE, they emphasize the value of vaccinations throughout their medical staff. With proper precautions, they are allowing small individual office parties, but not to the extent that they’ve had in previous years

“Small gatherings are OK with appropriate precautions, including social distancing,” Fogle added.

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As for their corporate party, which invites all staff with their family, PrimaCARE has canceled its annual event at the Venus De Milo for the second year in a row.

Similar to PrimaCARE, Sid Wainer & Son isn’t having a formal large-scale holiday party but instead internal gatherings by department at their office, according to Regional Vice President Allie Wainer.

Sarah Henry, development and marketing officer for Buttonwood Park Zoo, said there are no plans to have a staff gathering for the holidays, too. However, they do offer the zoo as a venue for office parties — which got booked in November.

The zoo will be having a “Cookies, Paws and Santa Claus” community event, which Henry says is almost sold out, as well as a New Year’s Eve celebration.

The New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! had its 2021 Holiday Party "Miracle on Pleasant Street," inviting staff, contributing artists and members of the community, on Dec. 3.

The New Bedford Regional Airport will be having a holiday party for staff in January, according to marketing director David Slutz. The Airport Grille will have a celebration with its staff, too.

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Slutz says the Airport Grille has a full roster of December bookings for office parties and other events.

Lafrance Hospitality is going ahead with its 75th anniversary reunion event that invites around 300 employees. They hold the event every five years and induct honorary employees into their “Hall of Fame.”

“We are carrying on the same protocols that we carry throughout for anyone coming to our restaurants for an event or dinner,” Fellows said.

The meaning of a holiday party

“Holiday parties are a really good way to kind of let off that frustration from work and being able to connect with people who you know,” said Wendy Hansen an employment law attorney for Foley & Foley in Falmouth.

“You probably spend more time at work or with your co-workers than you do with your family.”

Hansen, who has worked in employment law her entire career and was an HR manager at a manufacturing plant, said most of her clients have been eager to gather and feel more comfortable because of the higher vaccination rates in the Massachusetts area.

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Hansen says for most companies, it will be the first opportunity for some co-workers to meet each other in person.

According to a 2012 survey by BizBash and Seamless, seven out of 10 participants reported that a holiday party is important to office morale. Nine out of 10 participants said the holiday party helps team dynamics.

Foley & Foley, which has 8 to 10 employees, will have a holiday party at a venue later this month. The practice offers an “on-call triage service function” that employers can sign up with at a fixed monthly fee, and in return have unlimited access to call an attorney with employment and office-related questions.

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Hansen said she has been answering questions about employers on-the-fence about doing a holiday party as well as questions about the COVID-19 safety and vaccination requirements.

“From a compliance standpoint, having this function, people feel like they're a little bit more enabled to make the right decision, instead of having a lawsuit hit their door after the fact,” she said.

Hansen said she has been instructing most employers to go ahead with a holiday party. “I think they should just go for it. Do it with the appropriate regulations in place.”

Tips for keeping it safer

Hansen said having a party at a venue is safer than in the office.

“Venues have a little bit more of an ability to restrict people who are not vaccinated from coming into the building than an employer can,” she said. “And ensures that it's relatively clean and easy to do clean-up according to the CDC guidelines, something that you don't have to worry about at your office.”

Aside from COVID-19 safety concerns, since the start of the #MeToo movement started at the end of 2017, there have been concerns around safe and appropriate party environments.

In 2018, another survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. found that 35% of companies didn’t have a holiday party, the largest number since 2009, with 58% saying the #MeToo movement was a factor in the decision.

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Hansen said employees should monitor alcohol consumption, adding that there shouldn’t be an open bar.

“It helps to stem a lot of issues, because I would say of all the times that I've seen sexual harassment, definitely holiday parties tend to be the nexus for those issues,” she said. “Or even just out of work gatherings that are with work people.”

For employees still nervous to attend a holiday party, Hansen suggests that employers not make these people feel uncomfortable or singled out. “Even just bringing them a gift card, or some sort of gift from the holiday party works,” she said.

“You don't want to force people into situations where they feel uncomfortable for their health. So, it's good to keep it open and have an opportunity or an option for people who don't want to go to still feel included.”

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Hansen said most businesses are anxious to plan something for the holiday because of the lack of in-person social work events since the start of the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, just make sure that you’re following whatever safety protocol you can,” said added.

“As long as you maintain safety, it should be okay.”

Standard-Times staff writer Seth Chitwood can be reached at schitwood@s-t.com. Follow him on twitter: @ChitwoodReports. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: New Bedford, Fall River employers mixed on holiday parties amid COVID

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