Jill Gallagher hasn’t really had the heart to pick up the phone and spread the bad news: The coronavirus pandemic has canceled Thanksgiving. Or at least radically changed it.
With few relatives close by, Gallagher and her family adopted a number of friends and co-workers over the years who were alone on the most communal of holidays. Some have been coming over for decades.
“We call them the Thanksgiving orphans,” said Gallagher, who lives in Queen Anne. “They’re either single, without family out here or their family is elsewhere because of split households.”
Sometimes she’d have more than a dozen celebrating the season in her home with her husband and two sons. But this is 2020 and Thanksgiving has been canceled. Sorta.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the outbreak, coronavirus is still changing the way we live our lives. Halloween was far more reserved than normal and Thanksgiving will be altered, too. State and local health officials ramped up the pressure this week on those still planning in-person celebrations with dire warnings that even bigger spikes are ahead if we don’t stay distant. And Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday urged people against gathering with friends or family outside their households, in the face of a record surge that began last month and is again taxing hospitals across the nation.
Until recently, Gallagher was thinking about putting up a wedding tent and renting heaters for an outdoor celebration. But her 16-year-old son leaned on her heavily to cancel the party, sagely advising her it wasn’t worth it.
“I haven’t told everyone yet,” Gallagher said. “One of them was not only not surprised, but I think kind of relieved that there wasn’t going to be a choice. But one person already said, ‘Hey, you having Thanksgiving again this year? I’ve got nothing to do.’ So they’re going to be disappointed.”
Infectious disease experts hope the Gallagher family is the norm this holiday season, but fear the worst is ahead of us. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, recently declared Thanksgiving a potential “inflection point” for the U.S. on “Face the Nation” and predicted December “is going to be our toughest month.”
Washington state officials offered an even more direct analysis: Stay home unless you’re going to work, the grocery store or the pharmacy. Just don’t go. They noted that Canada celebrated Thanksgiving a month ago and the holiday was followed by a surge in positive tests likely caused by indoor gatherings and improper social distancing.
Hugging, after all, is one of the easiest ways to spread the virus.
“We know how Thanksgiving usually turns out for all of us when we’re in that environment,” said Dr. Paul Sherman, chief medical officer at Community Health Plan of Washington. “We say, ‘I’m not going to have a second piece of pie this year. I’m not going to have another glass of wine.’ We know that our resolve breaks down in those situations. So I would really caution people to be careful about going into a situation that’s really going to tempt them to put themselves and others at risk.”
There are plenty of other dangers on Thanksgiving as well. We tend to travel, and travel increases our risk of contact. And even on the sunniest of Thanksgivings, we tend to spend most of the day inside, either trapped in the kitchen or hunkered down in front of the television watching 10 hours of football. And, of course, everyone gathering around the table to eat and give thanks — without masks — is … hard to envision right now.
Short of quarantining for two weeks, there’s no real way to know you’re having a safe interaction. In fact, Sherman strongly recommends that any interpersonal interaction be conducted from a safe distance and over a matter of minutes, not hours, while outdoors. Do not give in to the temptation to linger.
“I do have a friend whose sister was having a baby recently, and he and his mother went into her house for two weeks and didn’t interact with anyone else at all,” Sherman said. “They stockpiled food and water so that they could see the new baby and hold the new baby. I just don’t think that’s practical for most people.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a list of high-risk activities that can put people in danger at Thanksgiving (including hosting a large indoor gathering of people who do not live in the same household, or attending a crowded parade), as well as moderate-risk activities (hosting a small outdoor dinner with family and nearby friends, visiting a pumpkin patch or fall display where safety guidelines are followed).
The CDC instead recommends hosting a small, immediate-family-only gathering, watching live events like parades and races on television, having a virtual dinner with friends and family, and preparing meals for high-risk members of your family or group, and delivering them using no-contact methods.
Gallagher plans to cook a turkey early and distribute meals to her loneliest friends before the holiday. Then, on Thanksgiving, she’s going to start a new tradition.
“My mission right now is to support the restaurants,” she said. “I hope people do that. They’re really hurting right now. And if people are able to support the restaurants either for themselves or buy a meal for somebody else, I think that could really be a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives right now.”
COVID-19 isn’t just impacting the traditional Thanksgiving celebration. It’s expected to further isolate seniors and vulnerable populations, for instance, many of whom will be eating meals alone. Families that are poor and people experiencing homelessness, who rely on food banks and holiday food drives, will likely have more trouble accessing charities that are already under extreme stress.
Union Gospel Mission employees aren’t totally sure yet how they’ll deal with Thanksgiving this year. With a few weeks to go, plans are still coming together.
“COVID has impacted us,” said Scott Cleveland, men’s shelter director for the Mission. “We will provide a wonderful Thanksgiving meal for all the residents who are currently residing at the men’s shelter. We’re still continuing to go out every night with search and rescue [teams] to provide food for our homeless neighbors, and we are exploring other options to see how we may bring Thanksgiving meals to those who are still out there on the streets.”
That might include boxed lunches or increased contact on the streets. Other charities and outreach programs will be going digital.
Chris Alin, director of operations at North East Seattle Together, a group that helps seniors connect with resources while aging in place or at home, says they’ve canceled their annual in-person potluck. The organization will continue to lean heavily toward digital events instead, including a gathering on Zoom.
“We do have some members who do live in retirement communities,” Alin said. “Right now, I hear that they’re still just receiving their meals in their room instead of being in the dining room. Some of them, they’re not quite sure what they’re doing. But they said, ‘Oh, if I can get on Zoom with Nest during Thanksgiving, it’s just one way to beat the loneliness and to see each other and just chat for a while.’ So I thought, I’m game. And I think it will be fun.”
Alin was so taken with the idea that she’s incorporating it into her own family’s plans.
“My mother is 89 and my sister’s living with her, but it’s not the same,” Alin said. “So our plan is connecting with each other online that day. So, first I’ll do the Nest gathering. And then I’ll also connect with my family.”
Sorting out what to do with family over Thanksgiving weekend is just one major decision we face as the holidays arrive. Sherman reminds us there’s another question to be answered: To Black Friday or not to Black Friday? All those sales will be sooo tempting (if they’re not put on hold by the state). But …
“They’re all going to be superspreader events,” he said. “I would strongly recommend that people try online deals or especially not being there for the huge crowds. Try to find it at an off-time. You might not get as good a deal, but getting coronavirus will be much more expensive.”