Oct. 29, 2020 -- Most years, Paula Emde’s Thanksgiving plans involve sharing a meal with at least a dozen family members, either at her home in Dunwoody, GA, or at a relative’s lakeside picnic pavilion about 80 miles south of the Atlanta suburb. Her favorite dishes include glazed ham, sweet potatoes, and her mother-in-law’s squash casserole.

She’s planning for the holiday to be a little different in 2020.

“Our main concern this year is to avoid travel, to avoid having anyone travel to our house, and to enjoy the meal safely, which means eating outside,” Emde says.

When people usually think of Thanksgiving, they might envision an iconic Norman Rockwell image of a family gathered around a single table, beaming while a turkey’s served on a platter. For 2020, people may want to prepare for something more like Charlie Brown and his friends sitting outdoors at folding tables.

Held this year on Thursday, Nov. 26, Thanksgiving will be another holiday impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the CDC and other experts recommending either significantly scaled-down, socially distanced activities or replacing the usual traditions with virtual ones to avoid exposure to the airborne illness.

“The most important thing is trying to assess and minimize the associated risks that are going to occur,” says Mark Rupp, MD, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “The risks aren’t going to be completely eliminated without eliminating that event. If you have an event with people not in your immediate family bubble, there’s going to be risk involved.”

The CDC’s official holiday guidelines identify lower-risk Thanksgiving activities as having a small dinner party with people in your household or preparing traditional recipes for family and neighbors, but sharing them in ways that avoid in-person contact.

The CDC classifies small, outdoor dinners with friends or family as moderately risky and large, indoor gatherings with people from outside your household as higher-risk.

Rupp finds that outdoor feasts offer a chance to lessen some risk, as long as the late November weather cooperates. “In some parts of the country, you can potentially have this out of doors, with plenty of fresh air and some distance between seating.”

Emde says that she, her husband, and their two teenage sons practice safe habits like wearing masks and social distancing. But given her sons’ extracurricular activities, like marching band practice, she considers her family potentially risky for others. She’s planning a small outdoor Thanksgiving Day meal for immediate family.

“We have an ample outdoor area, thanks to a broad driveway,” she explains. “We’ve already successfully had people over, seating them separately by households. We’ve had a total of four tables, with the adults at two of them and two tables for the kids, 10 feet apart and facing each other. Our sons can eat shoulder to shoulder at one table, facing their friends across the divide.”

She’s also considering using their yard’s firepit, their kerosene heater, or borrowing a shade tent, depending on the weather. “In the event of inclement weather, we would shift the tables into the carport,” she says. “We did this already once when it started raining when we had my mother-in-law over.”

If indoor gatherings are the only option, Rupp suggests ways to reduce the risks. “Wear masks during socializing, and have one person serve the food instead of everyone passing around the dishes,” he says. “You may be able to minimize the number of people present or minimize the duration of the event, so you may have a shorter Thanksgiving than you’re accustomed to.”

Rupp says people should not only be safe during the gathering, but observe safe practices ahead of time to avoid exposure. “For 2 weeks prior, you need to be extra careful,” he says. “If you’re able to do testing around the event, that will add an additional layer of security and reassurance.”

“Also, I would not be an infectious disease specialist if I didn’t include a plea for food safety in general, so make sure that the turkey is cooked all the way through and the stuffing is cooked all the way through,” he says.

Turkey Day Travel

Travel during the pandemic can further complicate matters, particularly at Thanksgiving, often the busiest time of the year for travel.

Driving with family in a private vehicle is the safest option, offering the most control of your interactions with others. “If you have to get out of the car to pump gas, wear a mask in case other people are around, and clean your hands afterward,” Rupp says.

You can make meals ahead of time and eat in the car, rather than going to restaurants en route, but some stops are unavoidable. “When using a restroom, wear a mask and practice good hygiene,” he says. “If it’s a larger rest stop, potentially scope out the situation. If there’s a crowd, wait until it has thinned out before going in, or go down the road a little ways to somewhere else.”

Taking an airline flight with multiple stops at crowded airports runs a greater risk of exposure. Rupp points out that during air travel, the time on the plane may be less risky than other parts of the trip. “The air is highly filtered, not recirculated, and some airlines usually leave the middle seat open. When you take your seat, turn on the air jet above you to help circulate air. Use hand sanitizer and wipes.”

But before you book a flight, consider that being on the plane is only part of the journey. “Things like mass transit at the airport, security lines, and crowded concourses might be more risky than the flight itself,” he says.

But whether you travel 10 miles or 1,000 to see people at Thanksgiving, remember that you need to maintain the same precautions with anyone outside your household or bubble, especially relatives in at-risk groups. “You can visit in-person for maybe a short period, but not stay overnight [under the same roof],” Rupp says. “You can diminish the viral load by wearing masks where possible and increase the dilution factor by opening windows.”

For people who decide against having Thanksgiving in person, think of creative ways to share the experience remotely. If you have friends and family in different locations, try to prepare the same recipes and serve them at the same time. “For virtual dinners, consider things like saying grace together, or the tradition of everyone going around the table saying what they’re thankful for,” he says.

Ultimately, Rupp encourages people to be prepared to make a difficult choice in the name of safety when making Thanksgiving plans. “Ask yourself if there are folks involved who are high-risk, like Grandma or Grandpa, or someone with a high-risk condition, and think long and hard about whether it’s worth it. I would say it is not.”

Staying safe during Thanksgiving 2020 can mean that you’ll be all the more grateful to share turkey and squash casserole in 2021.

Show Sources

Mark Rupp, MD, chief, Infectious Diseases Division, University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Paula Emde.


WebMD: “Fauci’s daughters won’t visit for Thanksgiving.”

Real Simple: “How to host Thanksgiving during coronavirus.”

UC Davis Health: “An infectious disease expert’s travel dos and don’ts on road trips.”


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