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A Gift Guide for People Under Quarantine

The world may have stopped, but those birthdays, anniversaries and holidays still keep coming

Thank God for DSW’s next-day shipping. I get paid on Thursdays and my wife’s birthday was this past Friday — I’d planned to head out to the mall on Thursday and get the new Jennifer Lopez sneakers that she was excited about. I’d had this figured out for weeks, but I didn’t plan for New York to be put under quarantine, including the closure of all the malls and other nonessential businesses. 

After a bit of a panic, I got it all sorted out by paying the extra money for next-day shipping and combining the gift with a nice home-cooked dinner. But it was a close call. And now, with other birthdays, Easter and Mother’s Day on the horizon, I’d like to be a bit more prepared on how to shop while we’re all stuck at home. So without further ado…

Rethink Online Shopping

Online shopping is nothing new: We’ve been doing it for years, and it’s become more and more convenient. But in the face of quarantine, your online gift-giving habits may need to adjust. Amazon has announced that it’s restricting what it’s stocking and sending, so your one-stop-shop may not be available. If that’s the case, gift expert Aileen Avery — author of Gift Rap: The History and Art of Gift Giving — says to also consider sites like Etsy and Uncommon Goods, both of which provide crafty, unique gifts that will be even more personal in a time where you can’t physically go shop for something. Most major stores are still shipping items as well, like those shoes I got from DSW, and other mall stores like Sharper Image

Wherever you’re buying from, it’s important to consider that you may not get the fast shipping that you’ve grown used to. Avery says, “Gift buying under these conditions requires a lot more thought.” While we’ve previously provided a lot of advice for last-minute gift-giving, during a pandemic, you’ve got to plan things out a week or so in advance, just to be sure you’ll be able to get things where they need to be on time, especially when it’s coming from independent sellers through eBay or Etsy. On the other hand, many major retailers have reduced shipping prices as an incentive, so it may vary depending upon where you shop. 

Most sites can provide gift-wrapping, so make sure you look for that option upon checkout, otherwise you’ll be digging through your old Christmas wrapping paper, trying to figure out which paper has the least amount of Santa Clauses on it. If gift-wrapping isn’t an option, you’ve got to get some shipped to your home and do it yourself, which is especially problematic if the gift is for someone who’s not under the same roof as you.

Cards are another thing you’ll have to account for. While essential businesses like drug stores and Walmarts sell them, it’s hardly worth risking your health for a greeting card. Fortunately, Avery says that there are companies like Leanin’ Tree that can send a card with a customized message in it.

Avery also says, though, to not fret too much about the details. If an item is arriving to a loved one without a card or wrapping or even late, people will understand given the present circumstances. Just be sure to call them on their birthday and let them know a package will be coming to them in a day or so.

Gift a Stay-at-Home Experience

I’ve done a number of gift guides and one piece of advice that always pops up is that an experience is the best kind of gift. “An experience gives the gift of time,” Avery explains, which is why it’s traditionally been ideal for you to buy an experience to do something with someone rather than just giving them an item to unwrap. But now, everything has changed. You can’t buy tickets to a baseball game or a Broadway show or even a gift card to a restaurant, as nobody knows when we can actually use those gifts. Gifting an experience in the traditional sense isn’t currently an option, which, again, requires more thought.

Still, Avery says that the principle of “giving the gift of time” still stands. While the circumstances for it are unfortunate, a lot of people have a shit-ton of extra time on their hands, so Avery says to give gifts that can occupy that time. “Now is a great time for people to begin hobbies that they’ve always wanted to learn, but never had time for, like knitting and other artistic ventures.” So, when you’re browsing for gifts online, try to look for stuff like art supplies, model kits, puzzles, books and any kind of game. 

“This is also a great time to learn something,” Avery says, so try to recall things people have talked about wanting to know how to do. She says if someone’s been wanting to learn piano, now is a great time to gift an online piano course, or to buy someone learning subscriptions like The Great Courses or Master Class

If You’re Out of Work

For a lot of people, there is no option to work from home and the quarantine is already going to stretch their wallets. If you’re in this situation, Avery says that there are still ways to make someone feel special without a physical gift — or even your physical presence. Recalling the days when mix tapes were still a thing, Avery says that making someone a Spotify playlist as a birthday gift would really brighten their day, especially if it’s a collection of songs related to your personal history together. Similarly, sharing an online photo album of the two of you — that isn’t auto-generated by Facebook — is a really sweet gift. “This is such an ideal time to go into your basement and dig out those old photos you’ve been wanting to organize,” Avery says. 

Even just a phone call is going to matter a ton during these times. People are feeling lonely and isolated so something as simple as a call can really make someone’s day. Avery says that this need not wait for a birthday or holiday either, as now is the time to call old friends and distant relatives and see how they’re doing. 

Anniversaries and a Spouse’s Birthday

A gift and a phone call are enough for someone who isn’t quarantined under the same roof as you, but if it’s your spouse’s birthday or it’s your anniversary, just handing them a gift isn’t going to cut it. They’re stuck under quarantine for their special day, which royally sucks, so it’s up to you to make the most of it. Try to fill the day — or at least the evening, if you’ve got to work — with things like favorite games or movies. Or, if you’re missing your regular trips to the movie theater, rent one of the movies that studios have put on digital early due to the pandemic, pop some popcorn and try to make it movie night at home. 

Above all though, Avery says food is the best way to make someone’s day special. For my wife’s birthday, I made her steak au poivre and ratatouille — two dishes I’ve never made before and couldn’t possibly spell without spellcheck. It took hours of preparation, but it turned out awesome and was a huge hit, especially considering the fact that most nights our dinners consist of ordering pizzas or making macaroni and cheese.

Essentially, by going that extra mile and making someone you love a special meal, you’ll show them just how much you care, and perhaps — if only for a moment — they’ll be grateful to be home.

For the Kids

While it’s easy to buy a toy online, making a kid’s birthday special while under quarantine is even more challenging than it is for an adult by virtue of their limited attention spans and often picky appetites. If you’ve bought them more than one birthday gift, try pacing them out throughout the day, so that the surprises keep coming. You might also want to try activities like board games and print-out versions of classic games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey. Just refrain from trying to do any kind of homemade piñata if you’re stuck indoors, as that’s a guaranteed disaster.

Also, Avery says you might want to try a miniature birthday party via Zoom, just so your kid’s friends can sing “Happy Birthday” to them. While it’s hardly the same as a party at Chuck E. Cheese, it will at least remind them that they have friends who care about them, even if they can’t see them right now. 

As for older kids, while family time and board games are a nice way to connect on their birthday, this also might be the time to indulge them in a time-consuming video game as a gift. After all, a teenager is going to know that being under quarantine sucks, and you can’t quite trick them into thinking otherwise like you can with smaller kids.


“Easter bunnies are going to become the next toilet paper, so I’d start shopping for them now,” Avery warns. If you celebrate Easter, start figuring out how to fill that basket ASAP, as you don’t want to risk running out and getting sick for some dopey-looking chocolate bunny the night before Easter. Also, if you’re used to making a day of Easter by going to a local Easter egg hunt with your kid, do your best to recreate the experience at home with eggs in your yard or around your apartment. 

Mother’s Day

“Flower deliveries are still going on and you can also get her a card. Those are the two biggest things during Mother’s Day anyway,” Avery says. She also recommends getting groceries delivered to Mom or buying her a subscription to Netflix or something else to help keep her entertained while she’s home. Also, just like with the kids, Avery says that moms will love a digital birthday party, especially if there are grandkids to sing her happy birthday. 

Father’s Day

Avery didn’t want to think this far ahead, and frankly, neither do I, but if we’re still stuck in our homes come June, don’t buy one of those stupid dad gifts for your father. Instead, go for a subscription gift, like from Omaha Steaks or a beer-of-the-month club or something like that. Just be sure dad knows how to safely handle those packages. Speaking of which…

Safe Package Handling

With so much misinformation out there, it’s easy to get mixed messages, even for something as simple as package handling. Not wanting to sift through the shit and guess which was best, I reached out to Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro, author of The Germ Files and host of the Super Awesome Science Show, to get some tips on safely handling packages. He says, “The person is always going to be more infectious than the package,” so the first thing to beware of is direct contact with the delivery person. Keeping a distance of three to six feet is ideal, and if you do have to sign for a package or anything like that, immediately go to the bathroom and wash your hands.

When it comes to picking up the package, Tetro says there are no special instructions, just bring it in and immediately wash your hands. The risk of transferring the coronavirus via the cardboard is low, but Tetro says there’s no harm in getting a disinfectant wipe and wiping the box down before opening it up. Once you’ve done that, there’s no need to worry about what’s inside, as Tetro says “the survival time of coronavirus is only a few hours at best,” so whatever might have touched the contents is dead.

It might also be a good idea to share these package-handling tips with whoever you’re sending a gift to — that way, they don’t take unnecessary risks with a direct handoff, or they’re not so afraid to receive the package that they leave it outside. After all, the purpose of a gift is to be enjoyed, and in a time where we’re all feeling a little nuts from cabin fever, a thoughtful gift might make a huge difference.

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