American Thanksgiving is fast approaching, but Canada celebrated its Thanksgiving in early October. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s calls to cancel in-person gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus, celebrations went on, and led to now-documented outbreaks. The experience of our northern neighbor, which has significantly lower COVID-19 cases, could serve as a warning for how Americans treat the event on November 26.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published its guidelines for a safe Thanksgiving, noting: “The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household.” But then it goes on to allow for less-appropriate behavior: “If you do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside your household, take steps to make your celebration safer.” Most of the rest of the document lists ways families can mitigate risks for in-person gatherings—limiting guests, cleaning surfaces frequently, bringing your own food and utensils to dinner, and using single-use salad dressing packets. But experts worry that these official guidelines are too lax in that they do not issue a sterner warning to cancel in-person Thanksgiving altogether.
The guidelines “don’t do an adequate job” of detailing the seriousness of the spread that the nation is currently experiencing in its emerging second wave.
Scientists and doctors who spoke to Fast Company agreed that Thanksgiving could become a superspreader event. “Absolutely,” says Rich Davis, a microbiologist at Providence Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane, Washington. “Yes, definitely,” echoes Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “In fact, I’m convinced, just looking at the way our general population is currently behaving.”
That behavior provides a clue for why the CDC may have given more lenient guidelines. “The notion is, if you provide recommendations, you don’t want recommendations to be ignored,” Schaffner says. “I think they’re not stricter because they thought they would be completely ignored.”
Much of the population is experiencing “COVID fatigue,” almost nine months into the pandemic and now facing the prospect of new lockdowns in many parts of the country. “They’re really at their wit’s end,” says Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University. “It’s starting to cause complacency and apathy, and just flat-out rejection of adherence to the guidelines.”
Experts surmise that it was perhaps a deliberate tactic by the CDC to ensure people take as many precautions as they’re willing to take, stopping short of “abstinence.” As a physician, Gonsenhauser says he often has to compromise with patients to ensure the healthiest choice for them. “That doesn’t always mean the best choice,” he says. “Sometimes, it means the best choice that they’re willing to accept.” Still, he wishes the CDC had started stricter, and then walked back the guidelines if needed.
Davis says the guidelines “don’t do an adequate job” of detailing the seriousness of the spread that the nation is currently experiencing in its emerging second wave, with every day now breaking new records in cases. He says the generic recommendations about wearing masks and staying six feet apart don’t lend themselves to an event like Thanksgiving dinner. “How can you maintain six feet apart when in a small apartment or sitting down at a table? Do people leave a mask on during a meal?” he asks.
Schaffner worries that even with the best intentions people naturally let themselves relax during holidays. After tipples and good cheer, it’s easy to slip back into natural behaviors. “After all, this is family! What could happen here?”
Lindsey Leininger, public health researcher
Here’s the sneaky thing about this virus that is frankly tragic. The things that sustain and deepen our human bonds are the same things that facilitate the virus’s spread.”
For those who are absolutely set on in-person Thanksgiving, the experts advise: Travel by car. Get tested beforehand. Get a flu shot. Bill Bahnfleth, an engineering professor at Penn State who focuses on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, is concerned with the lack of ventilation recommendations in the guidelines—short of mentioning that people should “open windows.” He says that’s likely not effective enough. Families could promote good airflow by placing a fan in the window, upgrading air system filters, and investing in portable air cleaners. Even so, he’s concerned about indoor gatherings.
Prolonged close contact indoors is the biggest worry; eating, talking loudly, and laughing are the perfect recipe for spreading the virus, says Lindsey Leininger, a data-driven public health researcher. “Here’s the sneaky thing about this virus that is frankly tragic,” she says. “The things that sustain and deepen our human bonds are the same things that facilitate the virus’s spread.”
There’s also concern about traveling home, especially among college students, since many universities have been tied to outbreaks. Gonsenhauser is surprised that there are no guidelines about quarantines before and after the event; he recommends students place themselves in a 14-day bubble before going home (these would have had to begin on November 12, but the CDC had not yet issued its guidelines at that point). Still, there are risks during traveling, such as being within six feet of the next passenger on the plane. “Who would want to find that they’d been responsible for infecting some elderly family member with health issues?” Bahnfleth asks. “I think that would be an awful thing to live with.”
All in all, this year is the one to get creative. Dr. Anthony Fauci and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced they’d be holding virtual celebrations with their respective families. “We’re doing it kind of like the Faucis are,” Schaffner says, recommending Zoom, FaceTime, or “old-timey telephone” for older, tech-averse folks. Leininger will share a piece of pie on her driveway with her neighbors, who’ll be standing “super far apart.” She’s heard of other people planning Thanksgiving bonfires or hikes.
The CDC does offer alternative ideas for celebrating with immediate family, such as decorating the home or shopping online, and watching movies and playing games at home; and does recommend online gatherings, toasts, or dance parties. When asked via email why the agency stopped short of recommending canceling the holiday, public affairs specialist Belsie González wrote: “Each family will have to make their own decisions, and we provide prevention options for those who still decide to engage in events of higher risk.”
With cases growing dangerously, and colder weather still approaching, the experts are certain that their advice will extend to December holidays, too. “It breaks my heart to say that it will be the same for Christmas,” Leininger says. “I understand that Thanksgiving and Christmas rituals are sacred. [But] this is the year to invest in future holidays. I want nobody to be missing a member next year at the Thanksgiving table because of an unfortunate issue with this year’s Thanksgiving.”