Video above: Infectious disease specialist warns of family spread during holiday gatherings
Thanksgiving has always been a big deal for Sara Wellensiek and her family.
Every year, the Phoenix blogger, her husband and their three boys fly to Nebraska to spend the week seeing loved ones. They go to a University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football game. They eat pumpkin spice treats. They spend the actual holiday with relatives. Then they come back to Arizona and have another celebration at home.
All told, Wellensiek estimated her fivesome probably has close contact with between 20 and 30 other people over the course of the week — not counting interactions with strangers on planes, in stadiums and around town.
This year, however, the family will see almost nobody. Because they're not even planning to leave the house.
The reason for this change in plans: the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many people, Wellensiek said she doesn't want to risk getting the virus or giving it to people she loves. She also doesn't want to contribute to another spike of cases in her community.
"We choose to stay home to protect ourselves, our family and friends, and the community at large," she said via email. "Without the COVID pandemic, our plans would not have changed."
Wellensiek's concerns are shared by many others. Across the country, many people are responding to the pandemic by making similar decisions about this U.S. holiday. None of these choices is easy, and managing feelings about skipping annual family Thanksgiving traditions can be hard. Communicating your decision clearly and thoughtfully can be the toughest task of all.
Note the rules
Before you can accept or decline a Thanksgiving invite, it's important to figure out how to stay safe. On Nov. 11, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention updated guidelines for holiday celebrations. The takeaway: In-person gatherings pose varying levels of risk.
Long, indoor gatherings with lots of people pose more of a risk than short, outdoor shindigs with a select few, the CDC noted.
Another factor: the number and rate of COVID-19 cases in the community of celebration.
In most states, up-to-date statistics on case numbers and community spread can be found on the area's health department website.
In areas where these numbers are rising, gatherings bring with them much greater potential risk, said Dr. Ramon Tallaj, founder and chairman of Somos Community Care, a network of health care providers serving New York City.
"You have to be smart," said Tallaj, who helped implement citywide treatment protocols when New York was a coronavirus hotspot this spring. "If cases are on the rise in your area, don't do it. If you're going to celebrate in a small apartment with lots of people, don't do it. We have pushed so many other things off and this should be no different. Really, what's another year?"
Focus on your safety
If you opt to bail on tradition this year, etiquette experts said it's a good idea to express your choice as a personal one.
Using "I statements," or statements that start with the first-person pronoun, make clear to loved ones that your decision has nothing to do with them, said Kianga Kelley-Crowley, founder and owner of Simply a Lady, an etiquette and communications consulting company in Wichita, Kansas.
"It's all right to say, 'I prefer not to get together with everyone,' or 'I'm sorry but we're not going to be able to attend this year,'" she said. "Take responsibility for your decision. Own it. Speak the truth to your family members. It's perfectly acceptable to say you're focusing on your own safety and would rather stay home."
Lisa Mirza Grotts, who calls herself the "Golden Rules Gal," added that her buzzword of the season is risk.
The etiquette expert said she has focused on explaining her decisions only in terms of potential danger — nothing else. This approach has made it easier for her to communicate unpleasant news, she noted.
"When you share your feelings in the context of risk — 'I don't want to be a virus spreader and put others at risk' — the sentiment is very straightforward," said Grotts, who is based in San Francisco. "This is one of the easiest outs there ever will be. It's not about you. It's about others and what you can do to them."
Managing the feelings
All that said, families are complicated, and altering an age-old tradition could put you at risk of hurting someone's feelings inadvertently.
It's incredibly uncomfortable to say, "No, thank you" to people with whom you generally have a history of agreeing, said Sharman Regensburg, a psychotherapist in East Northport, New York.
Charged interactions with family members, she noted, could lead to other conflicts or create serious internal pressure — both situations that also can be difficult to navigate.
Still, she said, particularly when it comes to your own health, you must speak your mind.
"In scenarios like this one there rarely is one right answer," Regensburg said. "You have to do what you think is best, follow your heart, be respectful in doing so. But also accept that by declining the invitation, you could be alienating that family member for years."
While it's perfectly normal that declining Thanksgiving plans would leave you feeling sad, Regensburg said that the emotion of guilt in this case likely represents something else.
"You can acknowledge you're sad and disappointed, but if you feel guilt, you're probably feeling angry that your loved one isn't honoring your wishes," she said. "Usually guilt is what you feel when you've done something you probably shouldn't have done. In this case, there's nothing wrong about declining the invite, so there shouldn't be guilt."
Giving thanks differently
There are plenty of alternatives to getting together with family members for a traditional Thanksgiving celebration this year. If you're interested in pursuing other options, you can find something that works for everyone.
Perhaps the easiest of the bunch is to follow in the footsteps of most workplaces and embrace a virtual holiday.
Here, one family member can assume the role of party planner and set up the meeting, send out invites and serve as "host" for the live event. On a basic level, participants can have the virtual shindig running during their respective dinners, so everyone feels like they're sitting at the table together.
For a more sophisticated approach, Kianga Kelley-Crowley suggested distributing prepackaged meals in advance, so everyone is eating the same thing at the same time, together over Zoom. As a way to say "We are thinking of you" to her usual holiday co-celebrants, Grotts said she was buying them a complete Thanksgiving dinner from a supermarket in their area.
As Tallaj suggested, an in-person gathering can work, too — so long as the event is held outside and all parties wear face coverings, engage in physical distancing of at least 6 feet, and practice good hand hygiene.
To pave the way for this type of gathering, clinical psychologist Angela Waldrop said it may be necessary to ask family members some pointed questions about how well they've been keeping safe. Waldrop likened this questionnaire to the same kind of interview someone might give a new sexual partner.
Some of these questions include: How frequently have you come into close contact with people outside of your household? To what extent are you wearing facial coverings and maintaining safe distance from others when you are out and about? Where outside your immediate neighborhood have you traveled in the last month?
She added that it's important loved ones understand why you're asking.
"It's like interviewing them about where they've been and who they've slept with," said Waldrop, who's based in San Francisco. "We can't control each other, but we're within our rights to ask — especially during a pandemic."