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Celebrating Thanksgiving Safely in a Pandemic

With a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide, the Thanksgiving holiday provides its own set of challenges this year. Luckily, the mild winter conditions in the South, alongside our access to technology and proven ability to get creative in the face of pandemic life, means that there are plenty of ways to celebrate the holiday safely by thinking a little bit outside the box this year. 

Assess Your Risk

First things first: Should we be gathering for thanksgiving at all this year? That depends on several factors, and it’s up to every individual to consider what their own risks are and what level of risk they’re comfortable taking. According to the recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, you should consider several factors in combination to determine your own risk:

• Are there high or increasing numbers of cases of COVID-19 in the gathering location or in locations where guests may be coming from?

• What is the risk for exposure during travel? Airports, bus and train stations, public transportation, gas stations and rest stops all pose some risk of exposure.

• Where will the gathering be held? Indoor gatherings, especially with poor ventilation in small, enclosed spaces, pose more risk than outdoor gatherings.

• How long will the gathering last? The longer the gathering, the higher the risk.

• How many people will be there? The more people, the higher the risk. 

• What has been the behavior of people who will attend? Individuals who have not been adhering to social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and other prevention behaviors pose a higher risk than those who have consistently practiced these safety measures.

• What behaviors will be expected by everyone at the gathering?

For many, looking at these factors may mean that Thanksgiving will look a little different this year. According to Christina Proctor, health promotion and behavior clinical professor at the UGA College of Public Health, this might be the year to keep your celebration small and confined to the people in your own household. 

“It would be the ideal time to take a break from the large family gatherings and focus on a small, intimate dinner with your immediate family,” she says. “The more people you bring together from outside your household, the riskier your Thanksgiving gathering becomes. The pandemic is currently surging in the U.S., with high numbers of cases and hospitalizations, and therefore there will be risk associated with groups of people gathering together indoors to share food.”

Most importantly, people should avoid gatherings altogether if they have recently tested positive for COVID-19, have been exposed or are awaiting test results. People who have increased risk for severe illness should also avoid in-person gatherings altogether.

“The pandemic is worsening in many parts of the country, so following guidelines, planning ahead of time and taking necessary precautions to protect those you love is really important,” Proctor says. “One large family gathering can be a superspreader event with serious consequences. Take the risk seriously and listen to public-health experts.” 

Gathering Safely

Some people, however, will assess their risk and still want to gather for the holiday.  “I understand that people have given up so much this year. We’ve missed birthdays, weddings and family vacations, so heading into the holiday season with the pandemic surging in this country has left me defeated,” Proctor says. “I want my daughter to spend some time with her grandparents, and I know others are missing their family and loved ones.”

With that in mind, Proctor suggests making a plan that everyone can agree on ahead of time. “Have conversations and make pacts to quarantine before the gathering and to get tested,” she says. 

Avoid air travel if possible. Prior to the gathering, ideally everyone would quarantine a week before getting a test, and then quarantine another week after getting a negative test result. The incubation time, or the time it takes for the virus to show up in test results or as symptoms, is two to 14 days, or, on average, about five days. “[This] makes testing a bit tricky,” says Proctor. “Let’s say the day before you get tested, you are exposed to someone with COVID-19. You can still test negative and develop symptoms later, if you get symptoms at all. So even if everyone in the family tests negative, you still want to take other precautions to stay safe.” 

If you don’t have the option to stay out of work or leave your children out of daycare or school for two weeks, then plan to avoid dining in at restaurants, don’t go to bars, and avoid movie theaters. In general, avoid spending extended periods of time in indoor spaces during the weeks prior to the holiday.

To ensure a safe gathering for everyone, it’s important that everyone understands and agrees to abide by the same basic public-health rules and guidelines. An email or conversation prior to arrival, laying out what guests can expect, can help get everyone on the same page. Creating simple signs to put up can serve as friendly reminders and help avoid confrontation. 

The CDC’s Thanksgiving recommendations strongly encourage everyone to wear a mask when indoors and not eating; observe six feet of social distancing; avoid going in and out of spaces where the meal is being prepared; frequently wash hands and use hand sanitizer; have one person serve the plates; don’t share food, drinks or eating utensils; and open windows if you are eating indoors. Also, consider having extra masks on hand and putting hand sanitizer in convenient and accessible locations.

“Our family is opting for the outside option, since we have family members who have pre-existing conditions. If there’s bad weather, we will set up the table in the car garage and leave the door open for better air circulation,” Proctor says. “The more your Thanksgiving festivities revolve around outdoor activities, the safer your family will be.”

One other way to reduce indoor time in the kitchen is to prepare food before guests arrive or to pre-order from a local restaurant food that only needs warming prior to the meal.

If eating a big Thanksgiving meal outdoors isn’t in the cards, consider other creative options beyond a formal meal, such as enjoying pie and coffee together outside. This shortens the time of potential exposure but still gives everyone a chance to see each other in person. If a meal or dessert doesn’t suit your gathering needs, consider an outdoor activity like going for a hike to spend time with family.

Celebrating From Afar

While some relatives and friends may be able to gather this Thanksgiving, there will be many family members who can’t make it or don’t feel comfortable attending in-person festivities this year. Many of those who may have to opt out this year are older adults who experienced many months of isolation during this pandemic. Isolation, recent studies have shown, has a significant effect on mental well-being and health.

“The pandemic has really shown us how important social connections are, and at no time do we notice it quite as much as during special events and holidays. Older adults have been particularly impacted by social distancing, and many are isolated and lonely,” says UGA Institute of Gerontology clinical associate professor Kerstin Gerst Emerson. “Reach out to those that might be at risk—on Thanksgiving, of course, but don’t forget about them afterwards. Socially isolated folks may still be lonely the day and weeks and months after Thanksgiving. So check in with a call or a letter or a distanced walk after the holidays as well.”

Other ways to celebrate distantly include gathering virtually to share recipes or video chatting while cooking or shopping online, and sharing other activities virtually, such as watching the Thanksgiving parade, a football game or family movies.

“If it’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we can get creative to get our social needs met,” Emerson says. “We don’t want to have dozens of people gathered in a small living room, but perhaps we can cook together virtually and then eat together virtually. Or perhaps we can meet outside and share some pie or dessert in a park.”

Also, consider sending a meal to a relative who might not cook otherwise or might not be able to afford a holiday meal. There are some great meal delivery options available,” Emerson says.  “Perhaps you can have the same meal sent to yourself, and you can have a virtual taste testing. Is that pie as good as grandma’s? Zoom or Skype or any video platform can work really great for this, but remember that the phone can be good, too. Not everyone has the equipment or internet access for video calls.”

Want to reach out to older adults here in Athens? Consider contributing to the Athens Area Council on Aging’s Thanksgiving fundraiser, Turkeypalooza. In partnership with UGA’s Campus Kitchen, donations to this fund will be used to purchase Thanksgiving meals that will be delivered to seniors and their families this holiday. Contributions also help fund ACCA’s senior hunger initiatives beyond Thanksgiving for the next year. Given that one in five older adults in Athens-Clarke County is at risk for hunger, donations can really make a difference in ensuring that older adults are taken care of beyond the holiday season.