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There are ways to do a safe, in-person Thanksgiving

(© Joshua Resnick –

For 2.8 million American families, this is your last Thanksgiving intact – with your mom, dad, your brother or sister, your nieces, nephews.

We didn’t use to have to think this way, but among the things that 2020 has taught us is there are datasets measuring everything.

The grimmest: 2.8 million Americans, give or take, die each year.

Yep, people died before COVID-19, from myriad causes – cancer, heart disease, dementia, suicide, accidents, domestic violence.

The holiday season is upon us, beginning next week with Thanksgiving, the annual feast that normally gets millions of us on the road to head back home, literally and figuratively.

It happens that our Thanksgiving falls on a date on the calendar that coincides with the height of cold and flu season – late fall by and large meaning colder temperatures forcing us inside, making us all more susceptible to passing viruses to each other.

And then on top of that, yes, COVID.

There’s a ton of pressure coming down from on high to treat this Thanksgiving differently  – to limit lunch or dinner to your immediate family, which pretty much makes it a regular lunch or dinner; to go virtual with your Thanksgiving, via Zoom or Facetime; maybe trying an outdoor Thanksgiving, which might actually work in the Mid-Atlantic, looking at extended forecasts that have high temperatures around 60 next Thursday for me in the Waynesboro-Augusta area, but may not work for everybody.

And, of course, weather forecasts can change.

Zoom or Facetime may be all you can do, if, say, mom or dad is vulnerable, if your sister-in-law wakes up with a fever and body aches, and your extended family decides to play it safe.

Maybe that could be the advice from the experts: play it safe, play it smart.

If you’re not 100 percent, the virtual holiday is your best option.

This would be wise, by the way, in the future, post-COVID, when this new virus joins the other 200+ in circulation globally, and it becomes part of the seasonal patchwork that can put us down for a couple of days.

But, making virtual family gatherings the default?

Humans are social, not virtual, animals.

And holidays mean something.

And for millions of us, this will be the last Thanksgiving holiday with a certain loved one.

Hate to have to put it that way, but it’s reality.

I know this personally. I lost my mother five years ago, lost the grandparents who raised me in 2009 and 2010.

What I wouldn’t give to have one more Thanksgiving with them.

How to be safe

Charlotte Baker is an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences at the Virginia–Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, located at Virginia Tech.

Her first bit of advice for those who do want to try a safe in-person Thanksgiving is to be smart.

“We’re social people, and this is a pretty social holiday. So in short: yes, safely get together with the people you live with or people who you might not live with but you consider to be your ‘pod.’ That might be next-door neighbors or family from a low-risk area who have been being very cautious just like you. If they — or you — are coming from a high-risk area, or if you know they do not regularly take precautions against COVID-19, it’s best to share a meal over video chat instead,” Baker said.

Point of emphasis: all precautions on deck.

Some tips from Baker:

  • Isolate prior to getting together. No going out to eat, no hanging out with other people not in your pod, get a test if you think you might have been exposed, keep up the handwashing/hand sanitizing routine, clean your masks.
  • Limit the number of people getting together. You still want gatherings of less than 10-12 people, and want to spend as much time outdoors or with windows open as possible.
  • Don’t forget normal things like taking medications, avoiding slick floors, or other things that might get you a trip to the ER even in a normal year.
  • If you realize you shouldn’t get together with anyone else, including for health reasons, don’t force it.

If you do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside your household, take steps to make your celebration safer. Follow the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations for gatherings and guidelines for travel during COVID.

See CDC guidelines on holiday celebrations and gatherings for more information.

This is what we’re doing

I should say, this is what we’re planning.

A family gathering of eight – myself and my wife, her mother and step-father, my wife’s sister, her husband and two teen-agers.

We’ll spread out throughout the house – dining room, kitchen, living room, our big backyard.

If anybody is at all sick, has been exposed to somebody with COVID, I’ll have a lot of leftovers, I guess, so not a total loss for me.

But we’re going with our default being that we’re a family, not a collection of disease vectors with broadband.

Story by Chris Graham