Celebrating Thanksgiving safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic

November 24, 2020
PHOTO: Getty Images

Thanksgiving is a special time of year for me and my family. We usually gather around the table to share memories, tell funny stories and, of course, enjoy our family’s traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing, green beans and other sides, including my sister’s homemade macaroni and cheese.

Many families like ours will celebrate Thanksgiving differently this year. Instead of large family gatherings, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to think about celebrations more creatively while keeping safety top of mind. This year, my family and I will celebrate virtually, and we will do something that we’ve never done before – exchange holiday dishes in a touchless way by dropping them off at each other’s homes. Thanksgiving is all about sharing memories and we can do so safely even during this pandemic.

As Medical Director of Infection Control and Prevention at Texas Children’s Hospital, my husband and our three grown children have heard me say over and over again – wash your hands, and now - wear your mask, practice social distancing and stay in your bubble. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 cases continue to rise not only here in the Greater Houston area, but all over the country. For the last 30 years, I have treated many patients with various infectious diseases that are considered highly contagious and easily transmissible if safety precautions are not taken. This is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we enter the holiday season, it’s important for us to never let our guard down at work, in the community and at home. Here are several safety tips to keep in mind to ensure you and your family have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving celebration.

Celebrating Thanksgiving virtually

The best and safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is only with members of your immediate household. You can still connect with other family members and friends virtually. I participated in a few virtual family events throughout the pandemic and I found people can get really creative. Recently, I attended a virtual birthday party for my 90-year-old aunt in Chicago. The party her daughters put together reminded me of Thanksgiving at her house. Everybody was on the call – we played trivia games and shared slide shows. Our family had a blast and it was so much fun even though we couldn’t physically be together.

Hosting a Thanksgiving gathering

If you plan on hosting a Thanksgiving get-together, here are some important things to think about:

  • Consider who you are inviting and know their risk factors. Have a conversation with potential guests to see if they are adhering to the same safety practices you follow. Ask them if they have been exposed to COVID-19 and if they are experiencing symptoms. We want to celebrate the holidays, but nothing could be more heartbreaking than to have a family member get sick. It’s important to remember – people can still spread the virus that causes COVID-19, even if they show no symptoms at all.
  • Keep the gathering small. As we continue to deal with the pandemic, avoid large gatherings. The larger the gatherings the more potential risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.
  • Wear masks and social distance. Make sure your guests wear masks at all times (even outdoors) except when eating and practice social distancing, two of the most effective ways to mitigate the spread of the virus.  
  • Move the meal outside. If weather permits, host your holiday celebration outdoors. Closed spaces can pose a greater risk for viral spread. Space your guests so they are not crowded around a table. If you have members from different households, keep each household together. After your guests are finished eating and drinking, remind them to put on their face masks.
  • Stagger meal times. To maintain social distancing, stagger meal times so only a handful of people are in the dining area at a time. Do not share utensils and have designated servers.
  • If you must celebrate indoors, make sure to open your windows to allow more air to circulate throughout your home. While ventilation is recommended, it is not a replacement for masking.

The CDC recommends that you refrain from traveling this Thanksgiving. Postponing travel and staying at home is the best way to protect yourself and others, but if you plan to air travel for the holidays, make sure you wear your mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands often. It’s also a good idea to bring plenty of hand sanitizer with you, and don’t take off your mask on the plane or if you use ride-sharing services like Uber.

While these safety tips are nothing new – we’ve heard them from health officials many times – we need to follow them. We’ve all experienced COVID-19 fatigue to some degree, but it’s important to stay positive. My mindset is, “If we want to celebrate the holidays with our families in person next year, we need to do the things that we know will prevent the spread, so we can look forward to celebrating again next year. We are in this together.” Happy Thanksgiving!

Click here for additional Thanksgiving safety tips from the CDC.

Post by:

Judith R. Campbell, MD

Dr. Campbell is a Clinician-Educator in the Section of Infectious Disease at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine. She provides care for infants, children and adolescents with a variety of infectious diseases and teaches the full spectrum of learners from medical students to...

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