Thanksgiving is usually a time for friends and family to gather and celebrate together. But this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for celebrating the holiday during the COVID-19 pandemic that'll make it look very different from what we're used to. The CDC's considerations include avoiding travel, large gatherings and even drinking alcohol, since it can cloud judgement and increase risky behaviors. But that doesn't mean our annual day of thanks has to be a bore — there are many ways to celebrate without putting yourself or others at risk.
The CDC's guidelines for a safe celebration
One of the busiest travel holidays of the year, the long Thanksgiving weekend is one that many people traditionally head home for, but this year the experts say it's best to avoid travel, if possible, to lower the risk for getting and transmitting the virus. "Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others," noted the CDC.
Here's how the CDC assesses the risk level for Thanksgiving activities:
- A small dinner with the people in your household
- A virtual dinner with family and friends
- Preparing food for family and neighbors (especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 who are social distancing), and delivering it to them without person-to-person contact
- Shopping online rather than in person on Black Friday and Cyber Monday
- Watching sports events, parades and movies at home
Moderate Risk Activities:
- A small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community
- Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people are taking COVID-19 safety precautions like using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and maintaining social distance
- Small outdoor sports events with safety precautions in place
Higher Risk Activities:
- Going shopping in crowded stores just before, on or after Thanksgiving
- Participating or being a spectator at a crowded race
- Attending crowded parades
- Using alcohol or drugs
- Attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household
While suggestions from the CDC like limiting your guest list and avoiding big outdoor events (the 2020 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is going to be virtual anyway) may seem reasonable, do people really need to eat holiday dinner over Zoom and skip out on the Black Friday deals in stores?
Why you should stay vigilant, even on Thanksgiving
According to Dr. Patrick Kachur, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, there's good reason to be cautious. The indoor multi-generational gatherings you're used to hosting for Thanksgiving are much riskier than the socially-distanced backyard gatherings many people held over the summer.
"I do think there are some real things to be aware of when it comes to gathering with extended family," Kachur told TODAY. "The gatherings we hold in November are going to be almost entirely indoors. Thanksgiving may involve people staying overnight in close quarters." Kachur said it's particularly important to be cautious if you’re going to be involved in multi-generational family gatherings or spending time with anyone who is at an increased risk for COVID-19. "If so, having a small family gathering is the way to go this year," he said.
"If you are in an intergenerational situation, wear masks to the extent you can," he advised. "The lowest level of risk is limiting your gathering to the unit you're sheltering with already. Thanksgiving is not the time to expand your bubble."
Kachur said it's very important to take precautions to protect those in your group who may be at a greater risk for the coronavirus. Talk to your family and friends about the measures they've been taking to mitigate their risk. Additionally, keep in mind that some people may not be able to socially distance or quarantine as much as others. For example, if someone in the party is a bus driver, or another type of worker who comes into contact with lots of people, they may want to consider opting out of a larger celebration to protect others at higher risk.
"Understand the risk in your own community," said Kachur. "That can be hard to predict right now. It will be the start of cold and flu season. It really is a dangerous time of year with respect to respiratory illness."
How to make the most of a pandemic Thanksgiving
Even if you're only making a small Thanksgiving dinner at home, that doesn't mean it needs to be any less special.
"It’s important to acknowledge that this year is probably not going to look like previous ones and that is absolutely OK," said Alejandra Ramos, a New York City-based chef and food writer. "You may be used to going to your hostess aunt’s elaborate celebration or usually spend a few days cooking for the big feast, but nobody should feel pressured to match that same level this year. We don’t all have the same resources, cooking skills, time or even mental energy as we may have had in previous years."
Instead, Ramos suggests focusing on the things you can do. "Ask yourself which elements of Thanksgiving are the most important to you and your family or group of friends. This could mean one or two specific recipes," she said. "It's also a perfect opportunity to get rid of the things you never really enjoyed in the first place. Don't really like turkey or always end up with too much cranberry sauce because nobody eats it? Go ahead and skip it. Or swap in something you and your household loves instead. If there was ever a year to break the rules, this one is it."
Ramos also emphasized that there's no shame in serving store-bought foods if it makes life easier. Instead of halving recipes for your smaller crowd, she suggests making the same amount as usual so that you get to enjoy the leftovers.
For turkey, Ramos recommends one pound per person. Not a fan? "You can also look to other cultures for ideas," said Ramos. "For example, my Puerto Rican family always celebrates Thanksgiving with a slow-roasted pork shoulder called Pernil which is perfect for a smaller group."