For the first time in our life, we are collectively experiencing the emotional and mental stress caused by a highly contagious and deadly virus. The scale of loss of life caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus is difficult for many people to grasp, but it is enormous.

Although many Americans are eager to get back to some normal semblance of life, it’s neither safe nor morally responsible to do so right now. Following the CDC’s advice and adapting to social distancing protocols is critical to slowing the spread. It’s our duty as responsible and logical humans to continue wearing masks and practicing proper hand sanitization when we go out.

The 2020 holiday season is lurking around the corner, and for the first time in a century, Americans are considering the complex task of celebrating Thanksgiving during a pandemic. The absolute safest thing for everyone to do is hunker down and celebrate Thanksgiving with the people who live in your household or virtually with extended family.

But if you are thinking about having a small and responsible gathering with members of extended family or friends, there are some guidelines you can follow for a safer get together.

Avoid These High-Risk Activities

Large indoor gatherings: If the weather will prevent you from having an outdoor Thanksgiving this year, or if you are unable to keep a 6 foot distance between guests in your house, reconsider having a gathering at all. Guidelines change state by state, but the more people who come to the event, the higher the risk of spreading the virus. Keep the amount of people you invite to a bare minimum. If you have any relatives that are immunocompromised or at a higher risk of severe illness, drop off a plate of food at their house and eat with them via Zoom or some other live video service.

Crowded parades: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been cancelled this year and is being replaced with a virtual event. But if your town is hosting a Thanksgiving parade of its own, think twice before going. Large events like parades have the potential to be super spreader events and should be avoided.

Black Friday: If you’ve got the shopping itch the day after Thanksgiving, avoid the crowded stores and support your local economy by patronizing small businesses instead. Check to see if your local shops have online ordering or delivery service for low risk shopping. Purchase gift cards for a fast and easy way to support local business.

Flying: Thanksgiving is typically one of the busiest travel days of the year. This year, if your family’s only way to get to you is by flying, suggest that they take a road trip or have a virtual Thanksgiving instead.

The CDC offers a list of low, medium, and high risk Thanksgiving activities that you should carefully review before deciding to have a gathering or not.

Set Some Ground Rules

People will most likely follow your rules if they are confidently laid out for all to see. Send an email to your relatives that includes your rules for a safe get together. Explain you are mostly concerned for public health and that you want to slow the spread of the virus. If they cannot adhere to the rules, suggest they make other plans.

  • If any of your family members are feeling sick, tell them to stay home so they can rest, get well, and not infect other members of the family.
  • Keep at least a 6 foot distance between everyone. To the dismay of many sweet old aunts, that means no hugs and kisses this year. If you have to be closer than 6 feet, you need to wear a mask, but avoid being closer than 6 feet at all costs.
  • Limit the amount of people you invite to your house this Thanksgiving. That means no unannounced guests or plus ones. You could also consider having guests come at staggered times throughout the day. Ask that the older relatives come earlier in the day, and the younger and less susceptible guests arrive later. An event with fewer people and further distance between bodies will be a lower risk event.
  • Avoid alcohol and other substances as they can diminish good judgement and encourage guests to engage in riskier behaviors.
  • Require guests to get tested and/or self-quarantine for two weeks prior to attending your Thanksgiving dinner. Remember a negative COVID test is not a pass to ignore safety protocols as false negatives are possible during the early stages of infection. Testing, however, can provide additional peace of mind. This requirement might limit the number of guests who are willing to come, but Uncle Ted will just have to find something else to do this year.
  • Keep up with the latest COVID-19 stats, and be prepared to cancel in the event of a surge.

Organizing Your Home:

The safest place for your holiday get together is going to be outdoors. However, if you live in a location where the climate wont allow an outdoor Thanksgiving, you will need prepare the inside of your home:

  • Create a well ventilated space with plenty of room for people to stand 6 feet apart. If your home is crowded with decor and furniture, consider putting some pieces in a self-storage unit to create more room to space out.
  • Set up box fans and open a door in order to have efficient circulation in your home. HEPA air purifiers with UV light or ionizers can also help clear the air of airborne viral particles, but remember they are not full-proof.
  • Set up tables in multiple rooms including the garage so people don’t congregate in one spot.
  • If it’s cold outside, use a fire pit or gas heaters to encourage people to spend more time outdoors.
  • Place multiple hand sanitizer stations around the house.

The Big Event

In order to prevent over-crowding in the kitchen, assign dishes for each of your guests to bring. Make sure you and your guests prepare each dish ahead of time, not in your kitchen the day of. Cook what you can outside—frying or smoking your turkey outside is more delicious, anyways.

If you live somewhere with nice November weather, prepare your outdoor gathering space by setting up several small tables or one socially distanced large table. Try to organize the tables so that family members from the same household are sitting close to one another. Put hand sanitizer on each table, and keep in mind that according to the CDC, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective.

Write your guests names on disposable cups with a sharpie so there is no accidental drink swapping. Set up all the food on a buffet table and put a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the plates. Make a rule that everyone must pre-sanitize their hands and wear masks while going through the food line. Allow only a few people to go through the line at a time, and encourage guests to keep 6 feet apart while getting food.

This Thanksgiving is full of uncertainties but the one thing you can count one is that millions of other families will be going through the same situation. Reach out to friends and loved ones and tell them about your hang ups and what keeps you up at night. Most importantly, rely on the advice and information given by the medical professionals and scientists.

Bottom Line

Any gathering of people from outside your immediate home increases the risk of COVID transmission. If you are determined to have some sort of Thanksgiving gathering this year, take every precaution possible to keep your family and friends safe and healthy. If the precautions are too much of a burden, or you aren’t sure if everyone will follow the rules—have a virtual gathering instead.

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Jonathan West