5 Recommendations for Giving Thanks During a Pandemic

If you are like me, you are experiencing a wide range of emotions about the upcoming holiday season. This is a time of coming together and being present with, and for, one another. Of course, the CDC guidance on holiday gatherings feels (and in many ways is) in direct contrast to what this season is about.

Tell my mom she can’t cuddle with this adorable gremlin? Forgetaboutit.
Source: B. Mezuk

And I understand (much of) the CDC’s guidance. Some pieces of it are frankly unnecessarily overbearing. The recommendation that I should “Treat pets as you would other human family members—do not let pets interact with people outside the household,” when there is no evidence that pets transmit COVID to other people, nor are pets likely to experience any lasting health consequences if they do contract the virus (which has only been identified as having occurred in a handful of cases) strikes me as overkill, to say the least. Wash my hands after touching a dog? Of course, that’s just standard hygiene, COVID or no.

I want to celebrate with my family, but I also don’t want to inadvertently get my septuagenarian parents or in-laws sick. This isn’t quite as challenging to figure out as those LSAT logic problems you sometimes play around with when you hear the siren song of law school after a hard day at work (I can’t be the only one), but that doesn’t mean it won’t involve some hard choices.

So, speaking as an epidemiologist who (1) is part of a household where all adults are working completely remotely, (2) has an elementary school-age child in school two days a week, and (3) wants to spend the holidays with my family, here are five actions I’ll be taking to do this safely.

1. Keep it small. I will not host, nor will I attend, any gathering of 10 people or more. And I know this is hard—as an Italian American, I have a large number of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, nieces, nephews, etc., whom it would be great to see, but that just isn’t in the cards this year. Why? Because not only is it harder to give people sufficient space when there are more of them in one place, but all those people will have come from different areas, bringing their local COVID risk with them. Skype with them after dinner, or call them during halftime, but don’t get in the same room with your extended family this year.

2. Get tested beforehand if you can. Depending on your state, it may be possible for you to get tested for COVID even if you are asymptomatic. If it is possible, I would do so, three to five days before you plan to see your family. And during those three to five days, you need to limit your outings to only those that are absolutely essential. And if you are positive, STAY HOME. Even if you have zero symptoms, STAY HOME. Even if your mom’s sweet potato casserole is calling your name, STAY HOME. Plan a get-together later, once you are not contagious.

3. Limit your exposure as much as possible in the 10-14 days prior to the get-together. Are you one of those adrenaline junkies who gets a thrill out of eating inside a restaurant these days? Is watching the game at your local pub part of your weekend schedule? Are you crushing it at the recently reopened gym (nice work, by the way—it shows!)? Are you attending church services in person? If so, and you want to see your family for the holidays, stop doing these things. Not reduce—stop. All indications are that the U.S. will continue to see more than 100,000 new cases a day for the next several weeks—this is no longer a “rare event.” We need to limit our opportunities for exposure, and that means switching to carry-out, watching the game at home, working out in nature Rocky-style, and Skyping into Mass. Remember: these are not permanent changes, but right now they are necessary if you want to be able to safely gather with your loved ones for the holidays. 

4. Wear a mask. Before I was married, my girlfriends and I would sometimes debate what would be a “deal-breaker” in a potential partner. Prefers Friends to Seinfeld? Deal-breaker. Has a Smurf tattoo? Deal-breaker. Has a criminal record? Depends on the offense. Anyway, you get the point.

But if I were making such a list today, refusing to wear a mask would definitely be on there. I am fortunate to live in a state whose governor established a mandate for people to wear masks indoors early on; while this was struck down recently at the state level, most local health departments have issued their own mandates. However, even if I lived elsewhere I would wear a mask whenever I am anywhere I cannot reliably stay away from people. Do I wear a mask because I hate freedom and love being told what to do by government officials? I’m sorry, have we met?

Now, I understand why people don’t like wearing masks, particularly around family and friends. The mask signifies, both socially and biologically (this activates our evolutionarily derived disgust response), that we think the other person is sick, contagious, diseased, etc., and nobody likes to feel that way about someone we love. I will state, for the record, that I also do not like wearing my mask around my family and friends; it feels even more intrusive to my life than wearing it out at the store. I get it, honestly I do.

But, the fact is, we are living with a virus that is spreading rapidly through the U.S. And so yes, you should be behaving as though other people can infect you—because they can. And they should be behaving as though you can infect them—because you can. So I will continue to mask up, and you should, too.

5. Wash your hands—often. My favorite expression that I hear every year at the Thanksgiving table is “Pass the gravy.” Now, the CDC’s recommendations included some pretty Byzantine ones about who should handle the food, and while they didn’t include installing a sneeze guard, they weren’t that far removed from such an idea.

However, what we know about this virus is that the vast majority of infections with COVID happen through respiratory transmission, not by two people touching the same object. So, if you’ve done 1 through 4 above, and everyone washes their hands (Jewel-style) before sitting down to eat, then you have likely minimized the risk as you pass the gravy or use the same serving utensil to dish out the turkey. As always, I’ll take some breast meat and a wing, please.

All that being said, some families will have some pretty hard decisions to make this year. If my son was coming home from college instead of hybrid-learning in the third grade, I would not also invite my 70-plus-year-old parents to dinner this year. Or, more likely, I’d invite them but tell him to stay at school and enjoy a “Friends-giving” with his roommates, and that I’d see him at winter break. If anyone in my family had to get on a plane or train to come to my home for Thanksgiving, I would probably tell them to stay home this year. If I had a family member who does not wear a mask, I would not get together with them this year. If I worked in a restaurant or another occupation that cannot be done from home (i.e., healthcare professional, grocery store clerk), I would not gather with my extended family this year. If I was fortunate to still have living grandparents (they’d be in their 90s) I would not get together with them in person—but I would send them flowers or another gift to let them know they are in my heart.

But all that is pretty easy for me to say because of the privileged position from which I am writing this, which is really important to acknowledge. Thankfully (pun intended), the recommendations I’ve made above are actionable for most people, regardless of their situation, and so I hope you will take them to heart this holiday season.

P.S.—I presume I was not the only Midwesterner to get a laugh out of the CDC recommendation to have Thanksgiving outdoors this year. If I lived in Florida, sure, but I don’t and there’s nothing that says “This was a bad idea” like having to wear gloves at the dinner table.


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