How to holiday: A guide to navigating Thanksgiving and COVID-19

A thanksgiving meal being served
With COVID-19 cases surging in the U.S., how can we celebrate the holidays safely? And is it safe to gather at all?
Wendy Wei on Pexels

Updated: Nov. 17, 6:03 a.m. | Posted: Nov. 12, 3:35 p.m.

Thanksgiving can be a wonderful time of year: A time for family, a time for tradition — a time when older family members get together with their germ-infested grandkids for a huge meal and a lot of close-talking. 

But of course, this is a pandemic year. And none of that is ideal during a pandemic. 

Minnesota is seeing its worst COVID-19 numbers since coronavirus arrived in the state — just in time for the winter holiday season, and just as state officials are clamping down on large events and social gatherings.

So, how do we handle family gatherings in the era of COVID? Should we cancel?

According to Dr. Jill Foster, director of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology, the answer is: Probably yes. Cancel your plans.

“That’s probably the wisest choice,” she said. “It’s just the reality of what we know. There’s a study just out from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] that shows that if you have a room full of people and you put just one person in the room with COVID, then 53 percent of the people are likely to be infected.”

But family traditions can be hard to give up, even for a year or two. Even if they were never much fun in the first place. 

That’s because, said David Lipset, an anthropology professor at the University of Minnesota, winter holidays aren’t just turkey and political arguments. 

They’re part of an ancient ritual, a feast to bind together a family, a community, before winter comes — before things get hungry. Thanksgiving, for one, has its own, more recent history, but humans have been doing this sort of thing for as long as humans have been on this earth. And we yearn for it.

“If you can’t return to people you see as part of yourself, then you’re negating yourself,” Lipset said. “You’re negating who you are. It’s not something that’s acceptable to most people. You know, you can’t cut an arm off.”

That applies to most people — even to Foster. She might be telling people, in her professional capacity, to skip Thanksgiving this year, but her own personal plans for marking the holiday look a lot more like they might in a normal year. 

“I have to admit that, for my Thanksgiving, my 86-year-old mother is flying here,” she said. “I talked to her about it and said, ‘This might not be the best thing for you,’ and she said, ‘If I don’t fly to your place, I’m going to take the train to Indianapolis to visit my boyfriend.’”

Foster’s mother is an independent soul. She does what she wants —and she wants a regular Thanksgiving this year. Foster figured a plane ride would be the lesser of two evils. Better air filtration. Less time exposed. 

And that’s the best most people can do, she said. At a time when everyday decisions can be fraught with risk and worry, planning for the holidays is no exception. Foster, Lipset — and officials at the state Health Department — offer some suggestions for how to frame your next family gathering.

Best bet: Go virtual

The best-case, lowest-risk scenario is to stay home.

Don’t plan for an in-person gathering. Schedule a video call — or several.

Bonus: There’s less cooking and cleaning involved.

Next best: Go outdoors; skip dinner

For a lot of people, being away from family at the holidays — despite the option of connecting remotely — is unfathomable.

There are still safe options available — and they’re all outside.

Foster suggests families go for a long walk together — or hang out in a park. If you do: Wear masks and don’t eat together. Eating is risky, because it’s impossible to wear a mask. 

Getting riskier: Go small

But many holidays are often all about food — and given the snowy, icy weather lately, it’s a good bet that most people aren’t looking forward to socializing outside, either.

Amid spiking cases, though, state officials are pleading with Minnesotans not to gather for Thanksgiving outside their immediate household and asking college students to consider not going home for the holiday.

That advice was a change from the state Health Department’s prior recommendations. The agency previously said it’d be OK for people to have gatherings up to 10 from three households.

The Minnesota Medical Association has released a statement begging people to follow CDC guidelines this holiday season: Wear masks, wash hands and keep any gathering short. Shorter gatherings pose less of a risk than daylong hang-outs.

The CDC has compiled an extensive list of considerations — for hosts, guests and those hoping to be either.

But even with all the appropriate precautions, know that hosting a gathering inside — with people from different households, however small — is a fairly risky one, as the coronavirus rages across Minnesota at record levels.

Wild card: How to be nimble when plans — or family members — throw you for a curve

It’s hard to control the behavior of others — especially family.

Sometimes you just walk into a bad situation. Maybe there are 20 people at Thanksgiving instead of 10. Or everyone’s crowded up in the kitchen, eating with their fingers. Nobody’s wearing masks.

Unexpected curveballs will happen to lots of well-intentioned people, Foster said.

What to do?

Well, she said, you can leave if you’re not comfortable with the setup. But if you decide to stay, wear your mask, and enjoy yourself, then shift to damage control. 

“So after [this] worst-case scenario,” she said, “especially if you get home and hear that Uncle Joe had COVID, you want to get a test. Three to five days is probably a good window.”

Then quarantine for 14 days. Do what you can and be patient. The traditions aren’t dead, they’re just on hold. 

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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