How to Navigate the Most Difficult Thanksgiving

Dining in the freezing cold. Watching a virtual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Carving the bird over Zoom. Thanksgiving in 2020 is going to be like no other in U.S. history, with the CDC advising that people postpone travel and stay home as much as possible. Despite the precautions many are taking around Turkey Day this year, some are still gearing up for private gatherings with out-of-town friends and relatives. We asked four of our columnists to answer the toughest Thanksgiving questions facing them personally.

Is there such a thing as a completely safe Thanksgiving when you're inviting friends or relatives into your home?

Absent restrictions most will find impractical, the answer is probably not — unless you've already established a pod. While risk can be reduced with pre-gathering isolation and other measures, unless precautions are followed strictly by every participant, they're more theater than protection. And the larger the gathering, the more likely it is that there will be holes. 

Take quarantining. If everyone limits interactions outside their household for two weeks, risks are low. But that's not always possible, and people can have very different definitions of what's safe, especially when caution is politicized and pandemic fatigue is common.

Travel also introduces new risks. Wearing high-quality masks on an airplane or in rest areas while driving — the safest choice — can reduce exposure chances. But likely holiday crowding adds danger. The hard truth is that no protective measure works as well amid America's severe outbreak because every interaction brings an increased risk of infection.

Precautionary testing is a useful supplement, but it's neither easily accessible nor foolproof. Turnaround times are long for highly accurate PCR tests, which introduces post-test exposure risk. The accuracy of faster antigen tests varies, and they're best used as a broad screening tool rather than a permission slip for incautious mingling.

Eating outdoors, mask use, increasing indoor ventilation by opening windows, and distance between family groups can help. Keeping that up will be difficult, especially in colder climates or unless everyone gets kicked out right after dinner. A lower-risk Thanksgiving gathering is possible. But no-risk is exceptionally difficult in the current environment. — Max Nisen

Who is the onus on to put rules in place at Thanksgiving? Is it the host? The guest?

It’s on all of us. It’s on hosts to create an environment that’s as safe as possible and to communicate expectations in advance. It’s on guests to both follow those precautions and suggest others. The pandemic holiday mantra: Rude is better than dead.

This year my husband and I offered to host, and our first step was to keep our guest list small; we invited only six family members who all live within driving distance, are either retired or working from home, and who have been “podding” throughout the fall. It was painful to exclude everyone else we’d normally invite — but every person you invite increases the risk of transmission. A small holiday seemed better than skipping the holiday altogether.

To try and minimize risk, we asked everyone to quarantine for the 10 days leading up to the event. Because tests don’t always pick up mild or presymptomatic cases, we’re not relying on them. We’re hoping to have the meal outside and have asked people to dress appropriately. To take the November chill off, we bought a patio heater — after calling 10 different stores and finally driving over an hour to the one that still had some in stock. 

It’s made for the most stressful Thanksgiving of my lifetime, and we still have a long way to go before the inevitable pumpkin-pie-fueled political argument. As a host, the worst part is not knowing what to do: Should we follow our state’s official and fairly lax restrictions on gatherings, the CDC’s ever-changing guidelines, or our governor’s new “request” to cancel entirely? — Sarah Green Carmichael

What if you’re not able to spend time with family during Thanksgiving?

Last year, my wife and son and I had 13 guests over for Thanksgiving dinner. This year, after planning to join forces with one other couple and then thinking the better of it, it looks like it’s down to the three of us.

This doesn’t mean we’re going to be antisocial. The current forecast is for a pretty nice day in New York City, so we may meet up with friends outdoors, or see if we can catch a glimpse of the Central Park owl. I’ll probably host a Thanksgiving edition of the weekly family Zoom chat with my dad, siblings, nephews and niece if the timing works, and there may be video chats with others.

It does, however, mean that we won’t be roasting a big turkey. I succeeded in avoiding that last year, too, opting instead for a turkey-thigh korma adapted from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe and a cabbage-and-ground-turkey stir-fry adapted from one of Fuchsia Dunlop’s. But this year I’m going to abandon the turkey entirely and slow-roast a duck according to the instructions of Merrill Stubbs. There will also be spaetzle.

This year, more than half of Americans are planning a smaller-than-usual Thanksgiving gathering, according to a survey conducted for Campbell’s Soup Co., with 22% planning to host for the very first time. Those survey results were released Nov. 13, and I would guess both those percentages have risen since the Covid-19 news has gotten steadily worse.

I doubt many of these people will be cooking duck instead of turkey (although a duck is much less likely to come out too dry!), but smaller Thanksgivings are nonetheless bad news for turkey farmers who raise giant birds intended to serve crowds. One such farmer lamented to the Washington Post that business had already taken a hit from closed college cafeterias and canceled fairs (where turkey legs are often a big item). And per-capita turkey consumption was on the decline already, although that may have more to do with the rest of the year than with Thanksgiving.

How to Navigate the Most Difficult Thanksgiving

So it may be a tough Thanksgiving for turkey farmers. It’s going to be a tough Thanksgiving for lots of people, especially the estimated 18 million Americans who as of October were either unemployed or had dropped out of the labor force despite wanting a job. But with the recent good news about vaccines, it looks like we may have a lot to be thankful for soon and will be able to gather safely with friends and family to celebrate it. In the meantime, try the duck. — Justin Fox

What are the scientific experts doing on their Thanksgiving? Is postponing Thanksgiving an option?

Skipping a big Thanksgiving gathering is a small thing to ask — trivial, compared to asking people to sacrifice their jobs, take their kids out of school or put their businesses on the line. Evidence is piling up that private social gatherings are a major source of Covid-19 spread, and so changing Thanksgiving traditions just this one year could have a big benefit.

In a recent column, I queried experts about what they were doing for Thanksgiving. Most were scaling back to just the immediate family, and some had creative ideas for finding un-traditional ways to connect — from October early Thanksgiving picnics to Thanksgiving hikes.

A recent survey out of Ohio State University indicated that about 38% of Americans plan to have a big Thanksgiving dinner with 10 or more people. It makes little sense to talk about masks in this context — people can’t wear them while they’re eating.

Studies that track how people actually get the disease keep pointing to the three C’s — closed environments, crowds and close contact. Combining those has led to numerous so-called super-spreader events.

The stakes are much higher in the U.S. than they were last summer: The total number of infected people has hit an all-time high and hospital beds are filling up. As I learned reporting this column in April, there’s no fixed point at which a hospital becomes overwhelmed — even when there are still beds, hospital workers can be stretched too thin to offer everyone optimal care.

Urging people to cancel traditional Thanksgiving may seem Grinch-like, especially since I’ve quoted people saying that it’s not unreasonably risky to open elementary schools and even fly on airplanes. My approach to opinion columns during the pandemic has been to withhold judgment until after I have listened carefully to multiple experts. Many experts recognized that excessive shutdowns of businesses were depleting people’s emotional and financial resources.

People are emotionally depleted, but recent news of a vaccine success makes any deaths that result from Thanksgiving celebrations all the more tragic and avoidable. A small sacrifice now will mean many more of us will be around to celebrate next year. — Faye Flam

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bloomberg Opinion provides commentary on business, economics, politics, technology and markets.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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