The year may be coming to an end, but the holiday season has just begun and with it brings a brand new set of questions about how we’ll be celebrating this year. Like everything else during the pandemic, there are no simple answers. However, there are ways to keep yourself and others safe during Thanksgiving parties and beyond.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has officially recommended we stay home this Thanksgiving, noting that more than 1 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the U.S. over the last week. While COVID-19 starts to collide with cold and flu season, the U.S. is experiencing record high numbers of daily COVID-19 cases with 7-day averages topping 160,000 cases per day and still rising, the New York Times reports. That’s more than the 66,000+ daily cases we saw during the summer when states were in various stages of lockdown. "As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States," the CDC writes, "the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with."
Bustle spoke with four experts, from medical doctors to public health specialists to epidemiologists, on how to safely attend a Thanksgiving party. All four made clear that any gathering comes with some risk and the safest way to celebrate is at home with people in your current household. “Thanksgiving is going to be very different this year,” Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, MPH, CPH, tells Bustle, “and it will be challenging for many people to not be able to celebrate with loved ones. But we also have an opportunity to create some new traditions.” So, if you’re leaning toward canceling in-person Thanksgiving celebrations or hosting Zoom Thanksgiving, that’s neither drastic nor absurd. In fact, it’s what all four experts recommend as the safest way to celebrate.
However, if you’re willing to take the risk, there are ways to limit the possibility of transmission and minimize the chance of getting yourself or others sick. But, again, the only way to guarantee the health and safety of yourself and your loved ones is to stay home.
Ask How Many People Will Be There
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t list a specific number, they do recommend having a small guest list at holiday gatherings, noting it's best to keep the guest list to only those who you live with. However, if you plan on expanding to people outside your household, limiting the number of guests not helps reduce the risk of exposure, it will make it easier to contact trace should someone get sick.
Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, MD and One Medical family provider and Regional Medical Director, advises people to limit their COVID-19 pods — a small group of people and households who agree to keep any maskless interactions within their bubble — to no more than three families and less than 10 people, including both adults and children. “The more people in a social pod or event, the higher your risk of spreading COVID," Bhuyan says.
First and foremost, if someone is sick, they should absolutely stay home. It’s also important to consider whether or not the guest list includes someone who is high-risk or lives with someone who is high risk for contracting COVID-19. You may want to consider whether this celebration outweighs possibly getting a high-risk loved one sick.
If Weather Allows, Celebrate Outdoors
Per the CDC, the only no-risk gathering is one that takes place virtually or is limited to those already in your household. However, the CDC notes that outdoor gatherings are lower risk than indoor. Likewise, the experts we spoke to emphasized the increased risk of indoor gatherings. “Indoor celebrations should be limited to people in your household,” Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, a public health policy and communications practitioner in New York City, tells Bustle.
Dr. Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA, also recommends celebrating outdoors if you can. “However, if people choose to have Thanksgiving indoors (knowing that this will increase the risk for spreading COVID-19), they should try and open windows or doors to help improve air circulation." Bhuyan suggests getting a patio heater for a more pleasant outdoor gathering or investing in a HEPA filter for indoor gatherings.
Clarify How Food Will Be Served
While there's no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food, per the World Health Organization, there is some risk in pot-luck style meals where multiple people gathered around the same area at the same time.
“Establish a physically distanced meal etiquette,” says Bhuyan, “a plated dinner served only by the host is best, rather than buffet style, to limit the interactions of guests.” Limiting food lines if a socially-distanced line isn’t possible and using a clean plate to get seconds “to reduce the risk of cross-contamination and interactions” are also best-practices per Bhuyan.
Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease ecologist and epidemiologist, recommends having one person serving to limit contact as much as possible, “preferably behind a barrier of some sort, and with of course a mask and either frequent hand-washing or frequently changed gloves.” However, she emphasizes that the way food is served is essentially rendered moot if people are indoors, unmasked, and not practicing social distancing: "Aerate! That's probably more important than having one person serve everyone.”
Socially Distance As Much As Possible
Because COVID-19 can spread through breathing and talking, per the CDC, maintaining a safe distance from other unmasked people at any gathering is crucial. Dr. Haynes-Maslow says people "should assess how feasible it is for their Thanksgiving guests to socially distance at least 6 feet apart." She also notes that people who don’t have space for social distancing, outdoors and especially indoors, should limit their guest list accordingly.
Follow the lead of reopened restaurants and space out your guests as much as possible. “This might mean a large Thanksgiving table with every few seats unoccupied,” Bhuyan says, “Or, you could set up several smaller Thanksgiving tables (with only household contacts at each table) that are spaced out from each other.” Use this as an excuse to relive your days of sitting at the kids’ table.
Wear Your Mask & Encourage Others To Do The Same
All four experts, when asked how to celebrate safely, gave a resounding “MASK UP.” Properly wearing a mask helps limit the spread of and exposure to COVID-19. If you need advice on how to talk to someone who refuses to wear a mask, remind them you’re doing it to keep yourself and the people you love safe.
Of course, you can't eat or drink with a mask on, meaning much of your Thanksgiving will be spent maskless. This makes it even more important to abide by other expert recommendations like celebrating outdoors, socially distanced, or with people already in your bubble. “This epidemic is not going away on its own," says Abbate. "If people celebrate Thanksgiving, particularly in irresponsible ways, they are going to make it harder to control.” If you want to celebrate, Zoom may be your best bet.
Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, MPH, CPH, a public health policy and communications practitioner in New York City
Natasha Bhuyan, MD, One Medical family provider and Regional Medical Director
Dr. Jessie Abbate, infectious disease ecologist and epidemiologist
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA, Associate Professor & Extension Specialist in the Department of Agricultural & Human Sciences at North Carolina State University
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