CHARLOTTE – Every year on the 4th Thursday in November, we commemorate the day in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans gathered to share an autumn harvest feast. Nearly 400 years later, the core of Thanksgiving remains the same: gathering around a table to enjoy a feast with family and friends.
With COVID-19 cases rising, many of the Thanksgiving traditions we have come to enjoy may be difficult or impossible. Thanksgiving is one of many fall and winter celebrations that typically includes large gatherings of family and friends, crowded parties and travel; according to the CDC, these are three things that put people at increased risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19.
But that doesn’t mean Thanksgiving is “cancelled.” There are still plenty of ways to celebrate withouting putting yourself or family members at increased risk of COVID-19.
Celebrating Thanksgiving with members of your own household, for example, poses little to no risk, and some people are choosing to forego travel this year to spend the holiday at home. “We usually drive to Ohio a few days before Thanksgiving,” says Jennifer Allen, who typically celebrates with a large group of 25-30 extended family members and friends. Allen elected to stay home this year in large part to protect her mother-in-law. “My mother-in-law is in her upper 70s, is a cancer survivor, and suffers from a respiratory illness, so we do not want to expose her to anything,” Allen explains. “My mother-in-law will stay home and stay safe, and we will celebrate at home, here in Charlotte. There are five of us, so I’ll still have plenty of cooking to do!”
The potential risks of traveling also factored into Allen’s decision to stay home this year. While traveling in your own car is a low-risk activity, it’s important to take into account the COVID transmission rates in the area to which you may be traveling. “The numbers in the state of Ohio overall are going up, so it would be a big risk for everyone just putting ourselves out there,” says Allen. Of course, when groups of people from many different geographic areas convene, it’s also important to think about COVID transmission rates in the areas from which they are traveling and the behavior of those individuals prior to traveling (whether they wear masks regularly, practice social distancing, etc). The larger and more geographically diverse the group is, the harder it becomes to ensure you can gather together safely.
While all in-person gatherings pose some level of risk, an outdoor gathering in a venue large enough to maintain 6’ of separation between guests from your local community is a moderate-risk option. Kourtney Sinclair and her husband plan to attend an outdoor “Friendsgiving” celebration this year with a group of friends the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The CDC offers several common-sense measures for making sure an outdoor gathering poses a relatively low risk to guests. While there is currently no evidence to suggest that handling food or eating is associated with directly spreading COVID-19, it is possible that a person could contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object (including food, food packaging or utensils) that has the virus on it and then touching their own nose, mouth or eyes. Accordingly, the CDC recommends that everyone washes their hands before and after preparing, serving and eating food and discourages potluck-style gatherings, suggesting guests prepare and bring their own food and drink.
Sinclair’s “Friendsgiving” will be a potluck, buffet affair, but guests will sit only with members of their own household and will use hand sanitizer before touching food or utensils. Tables will be situated at least 6’ apart, and guests will wear masks when they are not eating. “We’ve gotten lucky with the unseasonably warm weather in Charlotte this year,” says Sinclair. “‘Friendsgiving’ has been a tradition for many years now. It will be a little different this year, but I’m glad we’re able to find a way to still do it.”
Many other traditions surrounding Thanksgiving Day have been re-imagined this year in light of rising COVID numbers. For example, the annual Charlotte Turkey Trot – the largest road race in North Carolina and a local tradition for 31 years – is going “virtual” this year. Instead of gathering at South Park Mall, registered participants will don their iconic, long-sleeve 2020 Turkey Trot t-shirts and official bibs to walk, run or trot on their own Thanksgiving morning.
While not participating in an “official” Turkey Trot, Joshua Foster plans to complete a “Family 5k” prior to his Thanksgiving feast. “To avoid large crowds this year, our family is planning to hold a ‘Family 5k’ with an improvised route around the neighborhood,” says Foster, who manages to find the silver lining: “The advantages are no driving, no crowds, and I stand a chance of winning!”
Another time-honored Thanksgiving tradition is the Thanksgiving Day Parade. With continued prohibitions on large group gatherings, even the beloved Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will be reimagined this year as a television-only series of performances. Charlotte’s own Novant Health Thanksgiving Parade has followed suit after discussion with health authorities, public officials and industry experts. In lieu of a traditional parade, Charlotte’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will air on WBTV and feature “best of” segments from past years including floats, marching bands balloons and performances.
“We loved going to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning!” says Rosie Kakachyan. “I understand why it’s cancelled, but it’s disappointing. I feel like with proper social distancing and everyone wearing masks they could have still done the parade in a safe way.”
For Kakachyan, a televised parade just won’t be quite the same. “I love being in the action!” she says, “cheering for the people going past, making conversation with the people around us, having fresh funnel cake and coffee. If I’m going to watch on TV, we’ll probably watch the Macy’s Parade because they usually have more performances.”
The CDC is clear about the risks of Thanksgiving-related activities: staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. You can read more about low-, moderate-, and high-risk activities on the CDCs website as well as recommendations to reduce risk while traveling. Of course, you should refrain from attending holiday gatherings if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, are waiting on COVID-19 test results, may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.