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How to Celebrate Thanksgiving Safely During COVID-19

Illustration of Family celebrating Thanksgiving while doing a video call with Grandma

Ellen Lindner / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Many people are used to traveling or getting together with friends and family for Thanksgiving, but these traditions may not be possible this year during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Experts stay that Thanksgiving gatherings should be small in size but big on creativity and care.
  • Stick with celebrating just with those in your own household this year. If you wish to expand your guest list, take it outdoors to reduce the risk.

After eight months of physical distancing, many Americans simply want to give their far-away loved ones a hug and get together for the holidays as they do every year.

However, 2020 is not a typical year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and intensifies, experts are imploring Americans to stay at home and celebrate the holidays only with those they live with.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread by the inhalation of potentially infected respiratory droplets.

Large, intimate gatherings with lots of loud talking, laughing, hugging, and kissing—the very essence of many holiday celebrations—make a Thanksgiving gathering a particularly precarious situation. Eating—another defining aspect of Thanksgiving for many families—is impossible to do with a mask on, which further increases the risk posed by celebrating the holiday.

That said, there are some ways you can celebrate Thanksgiving safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. It just means doing things a bit differently, taking precautions, and perhaps even starting some new traditions with your loved ones.

Low Risk: Celebrate Virtually

According to a CivicScience survey of 3,300 American adults, 67% said that they would definitely not be traveling for the holidays this year. That's a good thing, given the CDC’s recommendation to avoid travel altogether and celebrate the holidays at home.

Following the recommendation to cancel holiday plans can be particularly tough for little ones, who are likely already missing family members like grandparents and cousins who they haven't seen for a long time. The sadness goes both ways; many grandparents are missing out on spending cherished time with their grandchildren.

A little care, compassion, and creativity can help you celebrate with loved ones near and far this year, while still staying safe.

Listen to Your Kids

Many children haven't seen their extended family since March, but that doesn't mean they haven't had them on their mind, says Maryam Abdullah, PhD, parenting program director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Kids might not dwell on the absences for a long time, that doesn't mean they aren't aware of it. "Help them explore what they’re missing about their grandparents and talk about ways that you can help them ease their longing by calling to mind the times they've been together," Abdullah tells Verywell.

Let Older Family Members Know You Understand

In 2017—long before the pandemic— an AARP Foundation survey found that 67% of adults “feel happy when thinking about spending time with family and friends this holiday season.”

Having the much-anticipated opportunity to be with loved ones dashed this year will undoubtedly be upsetting for many older adults. As with younger members of your family, it's important that you don't ignore your older loved ones' feelings.

“Acknowledge their disappointment and sadness,” Abdullah says. "And let them know that you feel this hardship, too."

Show Far-Away Friends and Family Know You Care

If your child misses a beloved grandparents' cookies, try baking one of their recipes together. Then, send them a fun photo of yourselves with the fruits of your labor—even if it doesn't turn out as good as theirs!

Encourage your kids to draw pictures or make lists of what they love most about spending time with their aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other loved ones you usually spend the holidays with.

When you've gathered them up, share these thoughtful drawings and notes via text, email, or FaceTime, or even drop them in the mail.

Find New Ways to Incorporate Old Traditions

“Find ways to bring the spirit of loved ones into the day even though we’re not physically together,” Abdullah says. For example, if everyone in your family makes designated dishes for your holiday meal, share the recipes via email ahead of the holiday. That way, everyone can prepare and enjoy the same food.

You could also ask your family's most musical member to create a playlist that everyone can listen to on Thanksgiving to feel more connected.

Spread Cheer, Not Germs

If family members live close by, divvy up your famous apple pie and drop a slice off on their doorstep. You can also mail something special, like a school photo of your child—to loved ones, or just send a note telling them why you are grateful for them.

Video Chat

Setting up a tablet or laptop at the dinner table will let you eat, talk, laugh, and even argue freely over your Thanksgiving dinner. With everyone joining virtually, but in real-time, you can stay safe without having to wear a mask.

“It’s the no-risk version of being able to have food and a big gathering,” Shweta Bansal, PhD, associate professor of biology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., tells Verywell.

Moderate Risk: Host a Small Celebration Outside

Spending Thanksgiving in-person with only the people you live with is the safest option. However, if you can meet certain criteria, you might be able to have a safe outdoor, socially distanced, masks-required celebration with loved ones who are within driving distance.

If you choose to have a gathering, you'll need to consider the added risks. You can use what epidemiologists call the "Swiss cheese model."

Bansal says that every precaution you take is like a Swiss cheese slice—it offers imperfect protection. “Each slice will reduce the risk, but there is still risk," she says. "The idea is that you want to add as many slices of ‘Swiss cheese’ as you can.”

Check Infection Rates

According to the CDC, areas where there are lower rates of infection are safer for having an outdoor gathering than those with higher rates. You'll want to check the rate of COVID-19 infection not just in your community, but in the communities of your guests.

People coming from lower-infection-rate communities are less likely to have and spread the virus than those coming from places with higher rates of infection.

Be Selective With Your Guest List

When you're making your guest list, remember that the smaller the gathering the better. If you have a large extended family and circle of friends, it might be difficult to pare down your list. If you feel bad or like you've left people out, remember that it's out of love—you are trying to keep everyone safe!

Bansal says that all of your guests should have a COVID test to ensure that they’re negative and self-isolate for 14 days.

You'll also need to think about whether the people you want to invite are especially at risk of getting sick or having complications from COVID-19. Vulnerable loved ones (such as grandparents or family members with chronic health conditions) might be better off skipping an in-person Thanksgiving this year.

If you do want to include family members who are at increased risk, it might be safest to only invite them and no one else to reduce the risk.

You'll also want to take any prospective guests’ behavior before the holiday in mind. If they have been refusing to wear a mask or just traveled to a high-risk place, you might want to extend a virtual invitation only.

Insist on Frequent, Proper Handwashing

Make sure that all of your guests know how to wash their hands correctly and that they do so frequently—especially if they are around food.

Provide paper towels and pump cleansers in the restrooms rather than having shared towels and soap. You'll also want to keep sanitizers in the dining room.

Set the Table in the Yard or on the Porch

As you're getting tables and chairs set up outside, make sure that you can seat members of each household at least six feet away from the next household.

Planning for social distancing is important because you'll need to take your mask off to eat. Otherwise, ask that all of your guests keep their masks on except to eat and drink.

Discourage Sharing

Your family might already be used to having people bring different dishes to be part of the Thanksgiving meal. This year, encourage your guests to bring all their own food and beverages. If you choose to serve food, give each household separate portions of each part of the meal (including condiments) and have them serve themselves.

While it might be extra work, keeping food separate reduces close contact between households.

Start New Traditions

It's hard to hear, but the less time you spend together, the better (because it means less of a chance of spreading the virus). At the very least, the less time you spend eating (and therefore maskless), the better your chances of avoiding infection.

To cut back on the time you spend with others, consider having Thanksgiving desserts with your family instead of an entire meal. You could also meet for a holiday walk around the park.

Get creative and be thoughtful. You might even decide that some of the traditions you start this year will stay part of your family's holiday celebrations long after the pandemic is over.

What This Means For You

Thanksgiving will look and feel different this year, but it's necessary to ensure that everyone stays safe during the pandemic.

Plan your celebrations thoughtfully and carefully. Get creative with both high-tech (Zooming during dinner) and low-tech (handwritten notes of gratitude sent via snail mail) ways to show your loved ones you're thinking about them even if you can't be together.

If you do choose to get together, have a small, outdoor, socially distanced, masks-required gathering—and keep it short.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2. Updated November 10, 2020.

  2. Goodwin E, CivicScience. There’s No Place Like Home for 67% of U.S. Adults This Holiday. Updated September 28, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID-19: Holiday Celebrations. Updated November 11, 2020.

  4. AARP Foundation. Social Connection and the Holidays (survey PDF). Updated November 2017.

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