As the United States grapples with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many are gearing up for a holiday season unlike any in recent memory. We're already seeing the affects hit annual traditions like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is going "television-only." Many stores have also announced unprecedented closures on Thanksgiving Day.
So then what does your own Thanksgiving celebration look like in an America continuing to see high numbers of coronavirus cases? We asked experts for guidance on how to handle Thanksgiving meals this year — and if it's safe to have them at all.
Make your own informed decision
Though Thanksgiving will probably look a bit different this year, it's still an important time for families to make memories together.
Sharon Nachman, division chief for Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, says making the decision to host and committing to doing it safely is important. You should give yourself enough time to think about how many people you can host, what you'll make, and how you'll serve it, as well as what people will do after dinner. That's on top of your typical holiday stress.
"I think the right answer as a start should be great, we can accomplish this. We need to do this. Now, let's figure out how best to do it," Nachman said.
What you do in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving makes a big difference
If you're planning on spending Thanksgiving in close contact with family and you can quarantine for two weeks, do it. If not, be extra careful for the two weeks prior to your feast. If you're hosting, encourage anyone coming to do the same, and try to get a sense of what precautions they've been taking.
"So essentially you want sort of a good idea of if everyone is being careful before you start your event," Nachman said. "The last thing you want to do is have someone that's completely not careful mixing with someone who's incredibly careful because they have to be."
You should also make it clear to anyone that if they're feeling under the weather even slightly the day of your feast, they should stay home. This is not the time to push through and attend anyway.
Much of the same guidance you've heard for months still applies
In general, it's safest to wear a mask and keep at least 6 feet apart from people who are not in your household whenever possible. Outside is typically safer than inside, so if you live in an area where the weather is generally mild and you have outdoor space, set up your feast there. The same goes for spacing people out if you have the room to do so.
Keep things small
In normal years, opening your home to anyone who wants to attend is one of the kindest thing you can do. This year however, if you're hosting, you'll want to think about how many people you can accommodate safely, especially if you have the means to space people out. Things like staggering eating times or limiting your time indoors can also be good options if those are things you're willing and able to do.
Get creative with serving and seating
Nachman suggests switching up how you seat people, especially if some family members are in higher-risk groups. Again, sit outside if you can, but that's not possible for all of us. Maybe this is a good time to implement a kids table if you don't already have one, seat higher-risk and older people in spots where they can more easily keep a distance, and/or seat people in close proximity to the people they live with. Think about your space and what makes the most sense for you and your guests.
The same goes for your menu. It's important to know that the FDA does not believe that COVID-19 can be spread by food or food packaging, so that's not really the concern here. Rather it's the shared utensils and face-to-face contact that happens when everyone is crowding into the kitchen for an extra helping of mashed potatoes.
Nachman again suggests altering your serving style by plating everyone's meals for them or by serving things that are more individual, such as handpies. That said, that doesn't mean you can't do things like dish out leftovers like you normally would.
Think about what the rest of your holiday looks like
As much as we love to focus on the food, your holiday weekend might typically consist of things like shopping, football games, and family visits — maybe even overnight. Make sure you have a plan of how you're structuring that whole day and even weekend.
"I think there are a lot of specifics about how are you organizing the day? Are people sleeping over? Or are they going home after the meal? Are they eating and then staying to hang out in the living room? All of those require sort of a different placement," Nachman said. "If they're eating and then leaving right afterwards, that's one set of things to think about and one set of planned events. Then if they're sleeping over you need to think about well, who's sleeping where? Are you sanitizing the surfaces? What are you doing about that? It really gets down to a lot planning but it's doable planning."
Everyone's situation is different
These are all best practices but everyone's situations will vary. It's impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice, so use your best judgement based on public health guidelines.
If you live in an area with particularly high COVID-19 cases and/or have a lot of relatives in high-risk groups, you may want to alter your celebrations even further or, in some cases, cancel them entirely. Keep an eye on the news, check in with your loved ones, and start planning soon (try a virtual Thanksgiving!) in order to have the safest holiday possible.