Thanksgiving Gatherings During COVID-19: 3 Things Experts Want You to Keep In Mind This Year

You don't have to forego celebrating this year—but you will have to make a few changes to stay safe.

The rumors are true: Thanksgiving is going to look quite different this year for a lot of people—including America's most influential voice on the COVID-19 pandemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, revealed that he too will be taking the necessary precautions to protect himself and his family during the holiday.

"My Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year," Fauci said. "I would love to have it with my children, but my children are in three separate states throughout the country, and in order for them to get here, they would all have to go to an airport, get on a plane, travel with public transportation." Because of that, Fauci said he and his children have decided not to gather in-person for the holiday.

According to experts, that's the right way to go. “As the number of cases continue to rise across the United States, it's important to stay vigilant about preventing the spread of coronavirus as we approach the holidays,” Anne Rimoin, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, tells Health.

But it's important to remember that one size does not fit all this year when it comes to Thanksgiving festivities. While every event will need more planning and precautions (and a lot less people around the dinner table), here are the key things you need to keep in mind for your holiday gathering, according to infectious disease and public health experts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1. Avoid travel as much as possible

The time period right around Thanksgiving is usually one of the busiest for travel—but this year, the CDC says staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. Travel drastically increases your chances of coming into contact with COVID, and then getting and spreading the virus to anyone else you see.

If you do have to travel, the CDC urges you to be aware of the risks that flying, driving, or traveling by train or bus can have. There are quite a few things that factor into the safety of any trip right now: the length of your trip, the number of stops, and whether those around you are practicing safety precautions, like social distancing and mask-wearing. The CDC also says that airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are also place where you can be exposed to the virus.

The best way to protect yourself during any type of travel you may have to do is to wear a mask, keep a physical distance of at least six feet between yourself and others not in your immediate household, wash your hands often (and avoid touching your face, eyes, or mouth), and avoid contact with anyone who is sick.

2. Keep gatherings small—and preferably outdoors.

Ideally this year, you'll be able to have Thanksgiving dinner with those in your immediate household or social distancing pod—the CDC suggests opting for a smaller dinner with those who currently live with you. “Every person you add to a gathering raises the risk of infection for everyone in attendance,” Rimoin says.

That doesn't mean you have to exclude other family members from your celebration: The CDC also recommends trying the virtual route to have dinner with anyone outside of your immediate household. Unfortunately, that may mean Zooming with your son or daughter in their college dorm if they go to school far away in another state, or dropping off a prepared plate to grandma.

If you're stuck on having a larger family gathering, there are safer options: Testing and quarantining ahead of the holiday, for example, might seem extreme, but these are hardly normal times. “If your household is multigenerational or includes individuals who may have underlying conditions or are in other high-risk categories, everyone attending should consider quarantining for two weeks prior to limit opportunities for infection,” Rimoin says.

The CDC also recommends any larger gatherings involving those outside of your immediate household take place outside. And instead of giving guests an opportunity to serve themselves, make up meals ahead of time. “Avoid a buffet by pre-packaging each person's meal so everyone isn't sharing serving spoons and pie tins,” Rimoin says.

3. Enjoy any big Thanksgiving events from home

The highest-risk events, according to the CDC, include anything that involves being around a large number of people. For Thanksgiving, that means going shopping in crowded stores for Black Friday, participating in or spectating crowded races, attending outdoor sports events (even small ones), or going to large, crowded events held inside—all things that you should avoid this year (especially when alcohol is involved, which can lower your inhibitions even more, the CDC says).

Instead, the CDC suggests you opt for safer, at-home versions of all of these events. Watching sporting events or parades at home is a better alternative to doing anything in real life (even the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will be broadcast-only this year). Taking advantage of Black Friday deals online rather than in person will greatly reduce your risk of coming into contact with someone with COVID-19, too.

However you choose to celebrate your socially-distanced Thanksgiving this year, it's important to remember that these recommendations are in place to protect not only you and your family, but your community and the US (and world) as a whole to help slow the spread of COVID-19. So even while celebrating, keep in mind that it's still essential to continue practicing social distancing, wearing a mask in situations when you're outside of your household (or around others from outside of your household), and be scrupulous about hygiene, per CDC guidelines.

Don't forget: Thanksgiving can still be about appreciating loved ones and everything else you're grateful for. “Throughout this pandemic, we have seen many acts of kindness and there is no better day than Thanksgiving to continue to show we care in new ways,” Carol A. Winner, MPH, who founded the Give Space personal distancing movement in 2017, tells Health. And if you're extremely bummed about how Thanksgiving looks this year, talk about it. Winner suggests making plans together by sharing family ideas for future holiday celebrations as a great way to stir up hope and enthusiasm for 2021.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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