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Should You Sit Out Thanksgiving and Other Holidays This Year?

Families weigh the options and risks of gathering, through a pandemic lens

spinner image Man and woman sitting at the dining table, having dinner, drinking Champagne and having video call with senior parents on laptop. Staying home, quarantine and social distancing celebration of event.
Sasha_Suzi/Getty Images

With cases of COVID-19 rising across the country, Thanksgiving and other holidays will look very different — likely much smaller — this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified big Thanksgiving gatherings as high-risk activities. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's top COVID-19 medical experts and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned that coronavirus cases could spike if people travel out of town and celebrate indoors. He says he's not having Thanksgiving with his own children, who live in different states, because they'd have to travel by plane and risk exposure to COVID-19. And he's warning others to be very careful about holiday celebrations.

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"Given the fluid and dynamic nature of what's going on right now in the spread and uptick of infections, people should be very careful and prudent about social gatherings, particularly when members of the family might be at a risk because of their age or their underlying condition,” Fauci told CBS News. “Namely you may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice that social gathering unless you're pretty certain that the people you're dealing with are not infected.”

As families begin planning for Thanksgiving and other holidays, they're weighing their options and risks through a pandemic lens.

Virtual versus in-person events

According to CDC guidelines, the safest option is to celebrate the holidays virtually or just with the members of your own household.

Anne Armstrong, 53, of Nashville, has opted to do the holidays differently this year. Armstrong will invite her 84-year-old mother over for Thanksgiving, but she'll meet up with the rest of her large family on Zoom. “I'm thinking of doing a game night,” Armstrong says, so the family can still engage with one another virtually.

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How to Plan for Your Holiday

  • Evaluate your risk tolerance around contracting COVID-19.
  • Try a virtual holiday meal, where you connect with loved ones by video chat.
  • Establish ground rules for in-person gatherings that everyone agrees to follow.
  • Assess risks posed by various methods of travel.
  • Be transparent with family and friends about concerns, illnesses and expectations.

She and others who choose a more physically distant holiday celebration can use technology to stay connected. Social media, video chats and phone calls can all help keep Thanksgiving, for example, festive without putting people at risk. In addition to organizing a game night with her family through Zoom, Armstrong plans to share recipes ahead of time so everyone is eating the same meal on video.

But some say they're still planning to gather for Thanksgiving.

"We're moving forward with holiday plans and get-togethers, based on what happened over the summer,” says David Bakke, 48, of Atlanta. Bakke traveled to Florida to see relatives during the summer and did not get sick, so he plans to return for the holidays, he says. His family will wear masks and keep social distance while indoors.

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"If people look at objective statistics and make correct choices, everything will turn out well. That's my plan currently,” he says.

These decisions aren't easy. People are yearning to see loved ones and to keep up traditions. But the reality is there's no way to guarantee protection from the virus if you choose to travel or gather with others not in your immediate household, says Jeffery Shaman, a Columbia University epidemiologist. There are so many variables when it comes to travel, mask wearing and approaches to social distancing. “The consequences are we are not able to make very specific policy recommendations,” he adds.

Planning and communication are key

If you're unsure of what's best for you, assess your level of risk and your tolerance for chance of infection. Factors like the infection rates in your community and the one you'd like to travel to, how many people will attend a gathering and whether the celebration will be held indoors or outside should be part of the calculation.

These decisions are even more consequential for people over 65 or those with underlying health conditions, who face greater risk for poor outcomes should they contract the coronavirus, according to the CDC. 

Planning and communication are key for families and friends who will gather this holiday season. Establish ground rules and make sure everyone is being transparent about risks and all parties feel comfortable with agreed-upon procedures. Those rules may include asking everyone to have a COVID-19 test before attending, or asking anyone who feels ill to stay home.

Denise Herrick, 66, who lives on a farm in southwest Iowa, plans to celebrate the holidays as normal with roughly 20 relatives who live nearby. Herrick, a blogger for her family's food and lifestyle blog The Gingham Apron and coauthor, with her family members, of The Gathering Table, says her extended family already has been spending time together so they are comfortable celebrating in person. They agreed if someone is not feeling well closer to the holidays, they will stay home.

"We're confident,” Herrick says. “We're not saying ‘I'm done with this’ or anything like that. We are cautious in making sure that we are listening to guidelines [but] we feel comfortable.”

Another consideration is travel — both for yourself and other guests you may then be exposed to. Traveling straight to the destination by car is the best option, Shaman says. However, if “you have to drive a long way and you have to stay in hotels along the way, then you have to think about planning your trip and not exposing yourself to other people."

Flying carries additional risks because you have to travel in a confined space with others, he says.

For those who do choose to celebrate the holiday with others, it is safest to gather outdoors, though that's not an option for everyone during colder months. If you have to meet inside, the CDC recommends opening doors and windows to increase air circulation. Other precautions include thoroughly sanitizing your home, having everyone wear masks indoors, social distancing, washing hands regularly, using touchless trash bags, having one person touch and serve all food, and having all guests bring their own utensils/plates.

As a final tip, the CDC recommends getting tested for COVID after the event to ensure you did not contract the disease.

Navigating the New Normal of Holiday Gatherings

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