This Thanksgiving, Michelle Preble planned to fly from her home in Clackamas County, Oregon, to Texas to share a holiday dinner with her mother and her brother, Donnie, who is in home hospice care. After a lifetime of severe epilepsy due to brain damage he suffered at birth, Donnie, 43, has been told by doctors that he does not have much time left.
But because of the pandemic, Preble, 48, has made the excruciating choice not to go — even though she has not seen her brother since last Thanksgiving and does not know when she will see him next.
“However much time he still has, I want to be as much a part of it as I can, and not being able to be is heartbreaking,” Preble said. “Every day, I’m just grateful that we have one more day with him, and every day, my prayers are that I get to see him again.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, the nation’s top public health officials are urging people not to travel or hold large gatherings so they do not contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.
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Many people, like Preble, are heeding that advice. But playing it safe can come with a feeling of grief over the loss of cherished holiday traditions and time with those who matter to them most.
“We know this is a painful decision to make, given how isolated and lonely many people have been throughout the pandemic,” said Tener Goodwin Veenema, a professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But with numbers surging, hospitalizations surging, we are forced to really look at implementing some serious disease containment strategies.”
With small gatherings at private residences contributing to an explosion in coronavirus cases, experts say the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is with members of your own household, or via Zoom if you want to connect with family and friends elsewhere.
Not everyone is abiding by that. But among those who are canceling their traditional turkey dinners, there is sadness — both about having to skip Thanksgiving with their extended families and about the magnitude of the pandemic in this country, where more than 250,000 coronavirus deaths have now been recorded.
“I feel hopeless,” said Marcellous Adams, 26, a financial crimes investigator in Plainfield, Illinois. “I feel like there’s no end date.”
Adams usually spends Thanksgiving at her 86-year-old grandmother’s house along with about 30 other relatives. It is her grandmother’s favorite holiday, she said, but the family has agreed not to gather this year. Adams is both disappointed and relieved.
“Everybody enjoys the camaraderie and family, of course, but at the cost of what? Health?” she said. “Death is the worst thing ever, so I’m going to follow all precautions.”
Preble will also have a pared-down Thanksgiving. In addition to not joining her family in Texas, she and her husband will not eat with their two adult sons either, even though they both live within a half-hour’s drive. Preble has rheumatoid arthritis, which compromises her immune system and leaves her vulnerable to Covid-19 complications, so she is being extra careful.
“I never imagined I would be in a position as a mom to tell my kids, ‘You can’t come over for Thanksgiving dinner,’” Preble said.
Her sons understand though, and will instead stop by for a quick outdoor hello, with masks.
“I’ll pass off a plate at the door, and do some elbow bumps,” Preble said.
When your large dinner breaks the law
Even as all 50 states report a rise in Covid-19 cases, it can be tempting to hold large Thanksgiving dinners — and many still will. Nearly 2 out of every 5 Americans will likely attend a gathering of more than 10 people this Thanksgiving, according to a survey released this month by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. One in 3 hosts will not ask guests to wear masks, the survey found.
Thanksgiving comes at a particularly difficult time in the pandemic, as colder temperatures in much of the country have restricted the ability to safely gather outdoors. Cases are already skyrocketing, and many people are experiencing “caution fatigue” — becoming desensitized to warnings out of exhaustion from observing safety guidance, said Jackie Gollan, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who conducts research on how to make better decisions.
Social events such as the holidays can skew individuals’ judgment, Gollan said.
“Being part of social groups is a very powerful factor that can interfere with our common sense or our beliefs in risk of Covid,” Gollan said. “This year, it’s very different, and it can be hazardous to our health or the health of others if we keep those traditions.”
Hosting a sizable group for Thanksgiving dinner could also be against the law. In various states, including New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, gatherings are currently capped at 10 people, even at private residences, in an effort to combat the “living room spread” of Covid-19. Houses are not well ventilated, which may cut down on heating bills but creates an environment in which the coronavirus can thrive.
Still, some see their Thanksgiving gathering as nonnegotiable, and they are doing everything they can to reduce the risk while carrying on with tradition.
“I would move mountains in order to be able to enjoy a holiday with my family.”
Lisa Tirone, 49, will be hosting a dozen family members, including her parents, at her Blairstown, New Jersey, home. Tirone, who owns a company that offers cooking classes and parties, will be using disposable plates and utensils; she will have hand sanitizer and air filters stationed around the house; and she plans to open her windows and sliding doors to improve air circulation. She will also take her guests’ temperatures upon arrival.
“I would move mountains in order to be able to enjoy a holiday with my family,” Tirone said, adding that she has asked her relatives not to have close contact with other people between now and Thanksgiving to limit their chances of exposure. “I’m extremely comfortable with the precautions we are taking.”
Much of what Tirone is doing falls in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for those spending the holiday with people outside of their household. If you are having Thanksgiving dinner at someone else’s house, the federal health agency recommends avoiding going in and out of areas where food is being prepared, and wearing a mask when not eating. The CDC also encourages holding Thanksgiving meals outdoors, designating one person who will serve food and setting expectations ahead of time for how to celebrate safely.
Many Americans are expected to get tested for Covid-19 in the days leading up to Thanksgiving as a safety measure before they congregate. Already, long lines have started forming at testing sites; Quest Diagnostics, one of the country’s largest commercial laboratories performing Covid-19 tests, says it has only seen a slight increase in turnaround time for test results for the time being.
‘A false sense of security’
All the precautions may not be enough.
“I think we’re all lulled into a false sense of security when we consider inviting our closest friends and even biological family members who don’t live with us — that because we know them and have a sense of shared values, that perhaps we are safe,” Goodwin Veenema, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said.
Rusty Hilst, 77, is a longtime high school calculus teacher in Hutchinson, Kansas, who left his job over the summer over concerns about the coronavirus. He has had two scares in recent months in which people he spent time with outside on the golf course later tested positive for Covid-19, and he is not taking any further chances. This Thanksgiving, Hilst will be alone, skipping dinner with relatives at his brother’s house for the first time in about 25 years.
“I’m not saying if I got it, I wouldn’t survive it, but I don’t want to try that situation,” he said.
Instead, Hilst will have a quiet holiday at home.
“I will probably try to find some sports, maybe a movie, and splurge with something a step or two above McDonald’s,” he said with a chuckle. A few days later, he revised his plans and decided he would treat himself to a takeout Thanksgiving meal from a country club restaurant.
Part of what keeps Hilst’s spirits up is the hope that he will be able to spend next Thanksgiving with family, especially given promising data emerging about Covid-19 vaccines that are in development.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, Preble is keeping in touch with her mother and brother in Texas via daily phone calls and video chats. She has no doubt she is making the right decision by staying home, and she is urging others to do the same.
“It just seems like it should be a no-brainer for everybody,” she said. “Imagine yourself sitting across the table from your grandmother or your great uncle or your cousin, and imagine that seat being empty next year.”
“Is sharing pumpkin pie together worth that being the last piece of pumpkin pie that you share with a family member?” she asked. “It’s just as simple as that.”