When it comes to whether or not you should celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this year in a large gathering, there’s a short and a long answer.
The short answer is: No, you should not.
The long answer is: Nooooooooo, you should not.
“We could not be at a more dangerous point in the spread of this virus, and it’s far better to delay a family celebration than to risk the health and safety of any family member,” Michelle A. Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in an email to The Undefeated. “With the promising news around vaccines and rapid tests, we really are starting to see a light at the end of this tunnel – which means now is the time to double down on our vigilance and stay safe until circumstances improve.”
But because there are less than seven days to go before dinnertime, and millions of Americans (nearly 40% say they will likely attend a large gathering this holiday season) have likely already booked their plane tickets or organized their plans, there are, relatively speaking, safe(r) ways to congregate while new cases of COVID-19 march toward 200,000 per day in the United States.
The most ideal way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to not do it in person. Instead of a dozen people sitting around the table, families can sit in front of a camera and have a Zoom dinner. Instead of multiple people cooking in the same kitchen, families can prepare individual meals and distribute to-go plates to each household. (While you’re at it, buy some stock in plastic foam.) Instead of shopping at crowded grocery stores on Wednesday, order groceries online for no-contact delivery or pickup.
As has been the case since the coronavirus effectively shut down the country back in March, indoor gatherings with minimal to no social distancing or mask-wearing – all staples of holiday feasts – pose higher risks for transmitting the virus. That was true back when the total number of cases was fewer than 2,000; there have now been more than 11.5 million as of this week.
Bringing 20 to 30 family members into one home, where people will sit next to one another and converse while taking off masks to eat turkey, greens, macaroni and cheese, etc., is a recipe for concocting a so-called superspreader event if at least one person is carrying the virus. Over the last eight months, whether it be a wedding, a small family getaway or a church event, there have been countless examples of innocent gatherings turning into positive diagnoses, hospitalizations and deaths.
Black families should be especially vigilant because African Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, both in hospitalizations and deaths. Black people are more likely than white people to have a list of preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to the negative impact of the virus. Black Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, yet, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which on Thursday advised against holiday travel this year, account for 19.4% of COVID-related deaths, and are hospitalized at 1.6 times the rate as the rest of the country and 2.8 times the rate of white Americans.
“One of the reasons Black people are disproportionately affected, it is because the rate of certain chronic diseases – diabetes, heart disease – or other ailments that put you at higher risk of having complications with this infection,” said Cheryl B. Prince, a retired epidemiologist who worked for the CDC from 1980 to 2019.
If that hasn’t scared you away from a dry bird and Patti pies that have been sitting in the deep freezer since 2015, here are some ways experts suggest to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 among your loved ones over the next few weeks.
1. Start quarantine yesterday.
The CDC recommends that people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days. With up to 50% of those who test positive having no symptoms, there’s no way to know – without a test (see below) – if you are currently carrying the virus. With fewer than seven days before Thanksgiving, you should have been quarantining for a week already. But if you haven’t …
2. Get tested.
To be on the safe side, family members could get tested for COVID-19 ahead of gathering together. There are two types of diagnostic tests to detect the virus: molecular and antigen. The main difference essentially being how far up your nose testers go (molecular is farther) and how fast test results are given (for antigen, as quickly as 15 minutes). Antigen tests are cheaper and return results quicker, but as the first outbreak at the White House proved, they are more prone to false negatives.
“If you just take the rapid test … the day before, you might be negative that day but you could be positive the next day. The rapid test has a fair number of false negatives that you couldn’t count on that,” Prince said.
But, as testing capacity has increased over the last few months, so has the rate of positive cases. People who have visited testing centers across the country have been met with hourslong lines and delayed results, and that’s if people can even get a test. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first rapid, at-home test.
3. Avoid traveling.
With people traveling from out of town, it’s less than ideal to immediately be around others. But there are ways you can travel safely. Driving is preferable to air travel, as driving lowers the risk of exposure to other people outside of your vehicle. Airlines have made accommodations since March, including leaving middle seats open (just two major airlines, Delta and Southwest, still practice that policy), regular cleanings and filtered cabin air, but before you reach the plane, you come into contact with hundreds of people in the airport, more so during the holiday rush.
Williams strongly advises against traveling for Thanksgiving, but in the event that you do, she recommends both the host and traveler quarantine ahead of time.
“Any sort of travel is going to exacerbate the spread of the virus and further tax already overburdened hospitals and health care workers,” Williams wrote in an email.
Depending on local health and safety laws (for example, the city of Chicago requires travelers from 46 states to either quarantine for 14 days or receive negative test results ahead of arrival), once you reach your destination you have to decide between staying at a hotel or the home of a relative/friend. While spending as little time as needed away from other people during the holidays is ideal this year, Prince believes, for those who drive, if both the host and traveler have quarantined for 14 days ahead of time, or were tested, it can be OK for travelers to stay in others’ homes (again, depending on state and local laws).
4. Wear a mask.
The CDC recommends that anyone over the age of 2 should wear masks when around people who do not live in their household. Masks have been shown to offer some protection against the spread of the virus. Not to mention keeping at least six feet of distance between people, and regular handwashing and sanitizing.
Those tips seem counter to the spirit of the holidays, but there are alternatives to holding a traditional dinner from years past.
Prince suggests eating buffet style rather than putting all the food on a single table where people reach over one another to grab food. To socially distance, families can spread out around the house, such as in the garage or living room, to eat and socialize instead of sitting around the table.
Thanksgiving is synonymous with cold weather – and in some parts of the country, snow – but the indoor rules don’t apply to the entire country. Having dinner outside is an ideal alternative. Families can set up outside, but Prince still recommends that, instead of one large table that everyone sits at, set up individual TV trays for guests, to practice social distancing.
“The reason it’s safer outside is you have better exchange of air,” Prince said. “If you’re inside, you’re all breathing the same air.”
5. Avoid the older or immunocompromised.
Both older Americans (65 and older) and those with weakened immune systems (cancer, lupus, Type 1 diabetes, etc.) are at higher risk of being severely impacted by COVID-19. According to the CDC, those 65 and older make up 79.9% of the total deaths related to COVID-19. People gathering with those who don’t live in their home is dangerous on its own, but incorporating the sick and elderly only exacerbates the problem.
“Let your immediate family members do the heavy lifting when it comes to setting up Zoom and FaceTime calls for your extended circle, and maybe take this year as an occasion to share your closely guarded Thanksgiving recipes with a trustworthy relative,” Williams said.
6. Black Friday shopping.
“Don’t,” Prince said, succinctly.
Despite all the warnings, and even the recommendations on how to celebrate safely, some Black families will still gather without social distancing or mask-wearing.
For those people, there are resources family members can use to encourage others to rethink in-person gatherings.
There are anecdotal stories in nearly every local and national newspaper about the tragedy that has befallen families who have skirted health and safety laws, such as an infected person who attended three events in Chicago that left at least three people dead. The CDC offers a trove of information on how to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and local health guidelines. And Williams recommends sharing the COVID Exit Strategy website, which shows up-to-date information on how bad the spread of the virus currently is in each state, illustrated by a color-coordinated map of the country; dark red, which represents “uncontrolled spread,” covers all but three states.
“The virus is out of control in virtually every part of the country, and with caseloads rising exponentially, things are only going to get much worse, much more quickly,” Williams said. “Showing that dark red map to a friend or family member is one of the quickest ways I know to drive home the reality of our situation.”
This year, whether from COVID-19, or the continual violence against Black people by the police, or even this month’s election, has been particularly hard for Black people. But unless they want to face more trauma and pain headed into the new year, now is the time to make sacrifices.
“Black Americans have indeed experienced disproportionate illness and death from this pandemic; we have also experienced the tremendous mental anguish that comes from seeing our loved ones suffer and die in unjust ways, yet again. And all of this has occurred in tandem with the pain reawakened by the racial reckonings that have happened across the country this summer and beyond,” Williams said. “So the desire to gather with extended family and friends is probably as strong as it has ever been.
“But it would be even more tragic to exacerbate death and illness among our family and friends by letting down our guards this year. By this time in 2021, the landscape really is going to look different – let’s hold off on celebrating now so that we can toast our collective health later.”