There’s no denying it: Thanksgiving — like many things this year — is going to look different. We’ve spent months social distancing, working from home, wearing masks every time we go outside in public… and now, we’ve got some difficult decisions about how we’re going to spend the holidays.
No one wants their Thanksgiving dinner to turn into a superspreader event like those we saw after the Fourth of July. But the idea of spending the holiday alone is also understandably upsetting. So what should you do?
Remember: There is no “best” decision here — just an informed one. The facts we have, whether it’s your county’s infection rates or personal risk factors, are constantly changing. CNN reports that Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), identifies small gathering as an increasingly common hot spot for infection as well.
But just because things are different doesn’t mean they have to suck. Being healthy and hygienic can be fun too — and a safe Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to develop new traditions that celebrate the same old values we all hold dear.
That’s why at Greatist, we’re here to help make sure that your Thanksgiving is still meaningful and memorable as you keep your family safe. Stride forward with the holiday spirit you have left.
The tl;dr checklist:
- Have I checked my community’s infection levels prior to attending?
- Are other people attending transparent about their community’s infection levels and whereabouts?
- Will there be enough room to social distance at this gathering? Can it take place outdoors where there is proper air flow?
- Are people willing to self-isolate and get tested prior to gathering?
Read on to learn why starting with these questions can help you make an informed decision about your holiday plans with family and friends.
Before you buy your turkey, do your research so you can weigh your options and decide what activities you’re comfortable with.
Should you travel?
Thanksgiving is usually one of the busiest travel times of the year. But if you ask the CDC whether you should go anywhere this year, their answer is “probably not.”
Travel is one of the riskiest things you can do because it can both increase your chances of getting sick and increase the chances that you’ll spread the virus to others — especially if you live in a state where cases have surged in the last 7 days.
If you do decide to travel, remember that not all types of travel carry the same risk:
- Air travel and public transportation are more dangerous because it’s difficult to social distance from strangers in close quarters — and you’ll probably be in those tight spaces for a long time.
- Traveling by car (or even better, by RV) is safer, though every gas, food, or bathroom break comes with risk of infection.
- You are also at increased risk if you need to stop and stay in a hotel or other lodging during your trip.
If you do travel, it’s important that you follow the same safety measures you practiced at home: wear a mask in public, stay 6 feet apart, wash your hands for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% percent alcohol, and avoid touching your face.
The CDC has assessed the risk level for some common Thanksgiving traditions:
Lowest risk: A virtual dinner with family and friends
You can invite as many people as you want, everyone can eat whatever they want, and no one has to travel. All you have to do is set up a video or zoom call. It’s pretty safe.
But hey, we get it. This option can feel disconnected — literally.
That said, we firmly believe you can still make it fun and memorable by being extra communicative about how much you love and miss each other.
Try out new activities or make up new traditions, like:
- Do a recipe swap a few days beforehand so that you can all try cooking the same thing (and you can compare results on the call).
- Send each other cards or care packages with a fun treat.
- Make dinner decorations, then hold a virtual vote over who made the best ones.
- Plan a virtual game.
- Have the kids host an “opening” ceremony before dinner with a song, prayer, joke, speech, or dance.
- Decide on a parade, movie, or sports event to watch and start a group chat to message each other while you watch.
Lower risk activities:
- a small dinner with the people in your household
- preparing food for family and neighbors and delivering it without person-to-person contact.
- shopping online rather than in person
All of these activities have about the same risk as your normal day-to-day because you’re keeping contact with people outside your immediate household to a minimum.
Just make sure you’re not shopping for your groceries during busy times and that you wear a mask and wash your hands if you’re dropping food off anywhere.
Medium risk activities:
- Having a small outdoor dinner with family and friends that live in your community.
- Visit pumpkin patches or orchards.
- Attend a small outdoor sports event with safety precautions in place.
The key to keeping the risk down is making sure that everyone can wash their hands and/or use hand sanitizer before touching surfaces, pumpkins and/or apples.
At public places (like sports fields or farms), wearing masks should be enforced and you should be able to maintain social distancing from strangers easily.
When hosting or attending an outdoor dinner, make sure you trust the people who are attending. You might want to also limit the number of people who handle or serve the food and use disposable plates and utensils.
And, as always, make sure you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer often.
High risk activities:
- going shopping in crowded stores before, on, or after Thanksgiving
- participating in or watching a crowded race
- attending a crowded parade
- using alcohol or drugs
- attending large indoor gatherings with people outside your household.
Anytime you are unable to stay 6 feet away from strangers, the activity becomes riskier. This is especially true if people aren’t wearing masks or if you’re indoors in poorly ventilated spaces.
As mentioned, small gatherings can become high risk if someone hasn’t been social distancing. But there are other factors beyond personal behavior as well that can increase COVID exposure, such as:
- community infection levels
- location of the gathering
- how long the gathering will last
- the number of people attending
- COVID risk levels where people are coming from
- whether people quarantined or maintained social distancing guidelines before attending
- individual behaviors during the gathering
Good questions to ask the host (or yourself)
You can lessen your risk at even larger dinners if you take certain precautions. Asking these questions before you attend a gathering may also help with your decision, as well as coronavirus anxiety:
- Is everyone attending local?
- Will people be wearing masks?
- Will there be alcohol at the event?
- Are people allowed to bring friends with them?
- Do the guests have children attending daycares?
- Has anyone recently been sick?
- Will the event be outside or in a well ventilated space?
You can check on infection levels in your community or other states directly on the CDC website. If there has been an outbreak in your area, you might want to stay home.
Remember, the more questions you ask, the more likely you’ll be able to make an informed decision.
There is no evidence to suggest that handling food or eating it can spread COVID-19, so long as you make sure you wash your hands and maintain good hygiene.
However, you can catch the virus from surfaces. That’s why how your food is served matters a lot.
If you’re cooking for someone else
If you’re cooking for someone outside your household (or who’s especially vulnerable to COVID-19,) it’s not a bad idea to cook with a mask on. Make sure you’re washing your hands before and after preparing and serving the food too.
Potlucks are riskier
It’s better to limit the number of people who prepare and handle food. It’s also a good idea to limit how much you share. That’s why the CDC recommends having guests bring food and drinks for their household only.
Or, if you don’t like that idea, avoid any self-serve food or drink options like buffets. Opt for one person (in a mask if you’re with people outside your household) to serve everyone at the dinner table.
Consider using single-serve plates, utensils, napkins, or tablecloths. If you do use anything reusable, wash and disinfect them afterward.
Takeout is okay if you’re too tired to cook
It can be a lot of work to cook, And braving the grocery store during this busy time can feel overwhelming. It’s perfectly fine for you to opt for takeout or delivery if you don’t want to go out.
Try contactless pickup or delivery to be extra safe. And remember to wash your hands after handling the takeout containers. You might also want to consider serving the food with your own plates and utensils.
You don’t have to eat turkey
If you have a small family, turkey can be a lot. But who says you have to have turkey anyway? A roast chicken might work just as well, or you can try Tofurky. You can also opt to get turkey cold cuts instead — perfect for a turkey-cranberry sandwich.
If you do have leftovers…
Consider sharing them with your neighborhood. For example, you can join your local “Buy Nothing Group” and share with your community.
Or you can drop leftovers off at your loved one’s home, contact-free.
You’re in control of your Thanksgiving Day plans. No one should make you feel bad about what you decide to do (or not do!)
Repeat after us: It’s perfectly okay to veto a Thanksgiving idea if you’re not comfortable with it. It’s also perfectly okay to ask someone not to attend if you’re not comfortable inviting them. And you don’t have to accept an invitation if you’re worried the host isn’t taking the right precautions or if someone high risk is attending.
You also don’t have to attend an event if getting there requires travel, carpool or public transportation. You shouldn’t have to risk your own safety to attend a gathering.
Thanksgiving is definitely going to be different this year and we’re all learning to navigate this new, unprecedented time. But just because we opt to stay home, wear masks, change plans, or go virtual with our celebrations doesn’t mean that the holiday isn’t still special.
There’s a lot of fun in making up new traditions — so why not start now?