How To Celebrate Thanksgiving While Minimizing the Risk of COVID-19

Lauren Sieben |

For many of us, Thanksgiving is the official kickoff to the holiday season—the one truly American holiday that unites us all. It’s a time to gather with far-flung family members, squeeze as many people as possible around the dinner table, strenuously avoid talking about politics, and feast on a meal that may or may not feature turkey, but either way is a heck of a lot of food.

But with COVID-19 rates rising alarmingly across the United States, many public health officials and government leaders are advising people not to travel or assemble in large groups. So is Thanksgiving canceled?

“Safety during this pandemic really depends on everyone taking personal responsibility,” says Dr. Christina Madison, an infectious-diseases expert.

If you want to play it as safe as possible, your best bet is to celebrate virtually. But you can minimize the risk of seeing a small group of only your very nearest and dearest by following these tips from experts.

Research the risk first

“If you plan to gather with family or travel to family, you need to determine what the risk is in that area,” Madison says.

She recommends using a tool like Covid Act Now to evaluate your destination. This tool takes a comprehensive look at the risk level in different states by weighing factors like daily new cases, infection rate, and hospital capacity. You can also zoom in on the county level to check out the infection spread in a certain area.

Even if the situation looks OK in your destination, keep in mind that your actions still have consequences in the big picture.

“Ultimately, these decisions are going to come down to personal risk tolerance,” says Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead at Forward. “Some people are going to be more comfortable with risk than others, but remember that each person’s actions influence the shape of pandemic overall.”

Isolate and get tested beforehand

Most of us can’t make like Kim Kardashian and jet off to a private island with our families for a pandemic celebration. But we can make a plan for safer gatherings, which includes getting tested for COVID-19 before turkey day.

“If everyone attending a gathering adopted very safe behaviors for two weeks before the holiday and tested a few days before the gathering, this could substantially lower the risk of COVID-19 spread,” Favini says.

But that won’t completely eliminate the risk, he adds: “Even with negative COVID-19 tests, everyone at the gathering should still be socially distanced and wearing masks.”

You’ll also want to consider the risk to each person in your group to avoid spreading the virus to someone at a higher risk from COVID-19.

Keep your group small

If you decide to move forward with an in-person Thanksgiving, be mindful of how many guests will be present. This isn’t the year to host an extended family reunion or invite 20 of your closest friends with plus-ones. (Sorry!)

“Keeping your gathering small [under 10 people] and maintaining physical distance from each other is important,” Favini says.

Take it outside

The idea of an outdoor Thanksgiving might seem inconceivable if you live in a cold climate. But it’s an unavoidable fact that indoor dining significantly increases the risk of spreading COVID-19: A recent study found that adults with confirmed cases of COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined in a restaurant before they became ill compared with a control group.

“Limit time spent indoors around people not in your family unit,” Madison says. “Having a small outdoor gathering with family this Thanksgiving and taking proper safety precautions will help you to be as safe as possible, especially if you gather in an area that has been able to keep infection rates relatively low.”

Consider renting heat lamps for the patio, and a tent to retain some of the warmth while leaving a couple of the sides open for ventilation. Older, more vulnerable people can also sit inside, near a door or window, to be close to others without sharing the same risk.

Set a time limit for indoor gatherings

When you dine indoors, the risk of transmission increases because of your proximity to others and poor ventilation, Madison explains.

“If you do decide to dine indoors, limit the time you spend,” she says. That means instead of an all-night dinner party, wrap up your Thanksgiving get-together after an hour or so.

Wear masks when you’re not chowing down

It might be tempting to go mask-free if you’re in a small group and taking all the other precautions.

But “people often forget that risk is cumulative,” Favini says. “The longer you have your mask off when you’re around someone, the more time you’re spreading your respiratory droplets, so minimizing the amount of time you’re unmasked is crucial.”

Everyone should wear a mask anytime they’re not eating or drinking, Favini says. And speaking of eating, skip the buffet this year—the last thing you want is every person in your group lingering (and breathing!) over shared dishes. Serve individual portions instead.

Offer COVID-19 essentials to guests

If you want to be the host with the most, stock up on safety essentials like hand sanitizer, masks, and disinfectant wipes.

“Having extra masks for guests is key,” Madison says. “Specifically, masks that meet the WHO recommendations of having three layers of tightly woven materials for best protection.”

Make hand sanitizer readily available to guests, and use disinfectant to wipe down high-touch areas like light switches, doorknobs, refrigerators, and coolers.

Reserve the right to go virtual

If all of the above sounds like a lot of work, you’re right—it takes a ton of effort, and following all these tips won’t completely eliminate your chances of getting or spreading the virus.

“Even with these precautions, there will still be risks,” Favini says. “Based on what we’ve seen from summer holiday gatherings, I expect we’ll see an increase in cases over the winter holidays.”

Stay flexible as you plan for Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, and keep an eye on those local statistics.

“The safest option is still going to be avoiding in-person gatherings outside of your immediate family,” Favini says. “Virtual holiday parties and events are by far the safest approach—and the best approach if you’re high-risk.”


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