By Ben Olson
While Thanksgiving is usually a time when family comes together — often for the only time of the year — with COVID-19, many families are rethinking their holiday plans.
I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with some of our traditional American holidays over the years. My freshman year of college, I was so broke I couldn’t afford to come home over the Thanksgiving break. Instead I skulked around my abandoned dorm building (I was the only person in the 400-room building that didn’t go home) skateboarding through the hallways, sliding down the bannisters like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone and eating care packages sent by my family on Thanksgiving Day. It was a bit depressing at first, but it was also kind of fun changing it up a bit. By the end of the week, I was a little bummed to see my castle of isolation teeming with people again.
A few years later, while living in Los Angeles, I was again broke and unable to return home for the holidays. On Thanksgiving Day, I figured I’d just eat my dinner at a restaurant and catch a movie, but it turned out nothing was open. I walked around for hours until I found a chicken chain restaurant called El Pollo Loco that was open and had macaroni and cheese and chicken strips for my dinner, then shared my leftovers with a homeless man who lived in the alley outside my house. It turned out to be a really fun night that I look back on fondly because it was different than the norm.
We all have memories of the holidays that fluctuate between fun and downright weird. After all, you can’t pick your family members, and sometimes that awkward conversation with your uncle or grandma can be exacerbated by current events like a global pandemic or a presidential election. It’s not to say you love them any less; in fact, loving a family member unconditionally — no matter how crazy or wrong you think their views are — is the ultimate indication that blood is thicker than water.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of chatter online about what to do regarding Thanksgiving. COVID-19 positivity rates are spiking across the country, but some states are showing dangerously high levels. Idaho is one of those states. Our positive cases are going through the roof, made worse by a large population of people who refuse to wear masks in public places — some who don’t even bother with social distancing.
However you feel about the pandemic, it’s time to make a Thanksgiving game plan that limits the potential spread of the virus to the elderly or vulnerable members of your family. It might actually be wise to take this year off from the usual festivities. This is not an attempt at fear-mongering, but a prudent suggestion that maybe gathering the family during a pandemic is not in the cards this year.
I get it, Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness and family fun. Thinking of all the good memories fills us with warm images: grandma making her famous gravy, dad watching football as kids run laughing through the living room, mom having one too many mimosas and telling that same embarrassing story again.
Nobody wants to give up those memories, but we are in trying times right now and need to start thinking about what is best for our loved ones.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized recently that the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu are increased around Thanksgiving as families travel to be with one another in a time when nobody is doing much traveling or gathering.
The CDC recommends limiting Thanksgiving celebrations this year to the people in your household, but if you are planning to spend it with those outside your household, they have issued a few recommendations to make sure the holiday event is as safe as possible.
The simplest tip is to wear a mask when not eating. Also to keep at least six feet of distance from those not in your household — especially those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions. Frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer helps the spread, as well. While hugging your elderly family members is a bright spot, it may be wise to give them a fist or elbow bump instead this year.
In addition to these guidelines, if you are attending Thanksgiving outside the home, consider bringing your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils, and stick to using the items you brought. Avoid going in and out of areas where food is being prepared or handled, such as the kitchen. Single-use options for salad dressing and condiments also help keep you contained and limits the potential of exposure.
If hosting a gathering, consider having a small outdoor meal next to a roaring bonfire. Limit the number of guests you invite and have conversations with those attending to make sure everyone is on the same COVID-19 page. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items between use. If celebrating indoors, put a few more logs on the fire and open the windows to help increase ventilation.
For those who are unsure whether a Thanksgiving gathering is appropriate, consider a few alternatives, such as hosting a virtual Thanksgiving with friends and family who don’t live with you. Schedule a time to meet and share a meal over Zoom, share recipes in advance and eat together around the virtual dinner table.
Most importantly, we have to come to terms with the reality of the situation we are in right now. Is it really worth hosting a large gathering when cases are spiking? Will it be such a calamity to postpone Thanksgiving to January or February, or whenever we begin to see the curve of infection flatten? We are hardy people here in America. We have overcome some of the greatest adversities by sticking together for the good of the nation.
Many look to World War II as a time when America was truly great. In examining how our population reacted during that devastating war, you’ll find that there was very little selfishness on display. Instead, Americans united under nationwide rations, with every citizen issued a ration book with a certain number of points per week. Meat and processed foods — vital for soldiers abroad — had high points. Fresh fruit and vegetables had no points. Supplies such as gasoline, butter, canned milk and sugar were rationed so they could be provided to soldiers during the war effort. People were encouraged not to waste food and to conserve energy, scrap drives helped gather materials for the war effort and many sacrificed their comfort and luxury items for the good of the country.
What has happened to that can-do American spirit in recent years? More than 400,000 Americans lost their lives during four years of fighting in WWII. In less than a year, almost 250,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19. We are very much fighting a war right now and we need to put our own comfort aside for a bit longer until we truly get a handle on this virus. It starts by recognizing that maybe Thanksgiving might not be the same as it usually is, and that’s OK. We’ll get through this eventually as soon as we all band together again to ensure the safety of those who are most vulnerable to this virus.
You never know. Thanksgiving this year could be one you remember years from now as “that crazy Thanksgiving when we all ate dinner over Zoom.” Memories don’t always fit into a neat container. Learn to live with adversity the best you can, and channel a bit of that sacrificial spirit that our previous generations showed during WWII by recognizing that a holiday dinner gathering may not be worth someone you love contracting this deadly disease.
Your family will love you just the same over Zoom as they do over the dinner table, and that’s what this holiday is really about, right? Giving thanks and love to the wonderful people in our lives. This year, it may be the ultimate show of love to be apart from your family and celebrate from a distance so you can see them again at the next family gathering.
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