Celebrating Thanksgiving Safely in a Pandemic: Avoid Traveling, Keep it Small, Wear Masks — or Go Virtual

by Carolyn Parisi
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With Thanksgiving less than a week away and coronavirus cases rising with no signs of letting up, many South Orange and Maplewood residents are wondering how – and whether – they can celebrate the holiday safely with family and friends. In short: Avoid traveling, keep it small, wear masks – and, in the best case scenario, do it virtually.

Experts know more now about how the virus is transmitted than they did in the first wave last spring; in particular, scientists now are certain that COVID-19 spreads quickly in close, indoor spaces with little ventilation, among people who are not wearing masks and are in close proximity for lengthy periods of time.

In other words: the typical Thanksgiving holiday – with multiple generations of family and friends gathered indoors for hours, talking, laughing, eating and hugging – is the perfect storm for a coronavirus outbreak.

In fact, with more than 1 million COVID-19 cases reported in just the last 7 days, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) urged Americans not to travel at all during the holiday, noting that the safest way to celebrate the holiday is at home, with people in your household.

“It’s understandable [that people want to gather for the holiday], I don’t want to be critical of that,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci this week in an interview on CBS This Morning. “But we want to just plead with them to understand the dynamics of this outbreak.”

He emphasized that if people do gather, they should wear masks and keep them on when they are not eating and drinking, even in a small group. “If we do the things that are simple public health measures, that soaring will level and start to come down. You add that to the help of a vaccine, we can turn this around. It is not futile.”

So how can you ensure your Thanksgiving doesn’t become a superspreader event?

“Keep activities low and slow,” said Maplewood Public Health Officer Candice Davenport at Tuesday’s Township Committee meeting. In other words, slow down the number of interactions your household members have over the holidays, keep your gatherings outdoors as much as possible, and keep to a low number of people per gathering.

Most new cases in Maplewood (and South Orange) are coming from indoor social gatherings – especially when people are not wearing face coverings. Many are among people in the same household, “which speaks to how quickly COVID-19 can pass in an enclosed space,” Davenport said. “So if one person brings it home, it spreads throughout the entire family.”

Echoing the advice of many health experts, Davenport strongly advised people to limit Thanksgiving to only those in their household. This is particularly true if you have family members who are elderly or immuno-compromised.

“All of this is to prevent further spread of disease,” said Davenport. “This time asks that we all do our part to slow down the rate of infection in our community.”

If your child is coming home from college, make sure they follow the guidance issued from their school. Many colleges have urged or even mandated that students be tested before they go home. Also, take note of whether students are coming from locations with higher positivity rates, and also consider how much travel will be involved.

All students coming home should follow travel advisories to quarantine for 14 days upon return – meaning, no socializing with friends or anyone outside their household.

However, Davenport cautioned, don’t let test results give a false sense of security.

“Do not get tested to see if you can see your family this Thanksgiving,” she said. “In fact, if you are taking a test to see if you are negative [just] so that you can see your family…it is a moot point because a) you can get infected between now and then and b) that test is just the result on that day.”

Still, anyone who thinks they have come in contact with a suspected or positive case of COVID-19 should get tested 5-7 days from the last date of contact with the positive person, and consider not attending any gatherings two weeks from last date of exposure, said Davenport.

That might be easier said than done – testing has become more difficult in recent weeks, with supply not meeting demand and wait times for results increasing. (See more information on where to get tested in NJ here. Essex County has upcoming satellite testing sites here. See a list of local testing locations at the end of this article.)

If you will be hosting or attending a small gathering on Thanksgiving, here are some safety tips:

  • Stay outdoors whenever possible (in an open garage, or on a deck/patio with heaters).
  • If indoors, keep doors and windows open for ventilation. Put a fan in a window facing out.
  • Wear face coverings at indoor social gatherings, just as in public settings.
  • No gathering in large groups – keep it to no more than 10 people, as mandated by executive order.
  • Stand 6′ apart from those who are not in your household.
  • Don’t share utensils. Have one person serve food.
  • Provide hand sanitizer; encourage guests to wash hands frequently.

If all that seems like more trouble than it’s worth, consider other options for a safe holiday:

“I think this is going to be the hardest holiday [because] now is the time to show this very strange phenomenon, that ‘I love you, so I’m going to stay away.'” said Davenport. “For this year…we have to do our best to make the sacrifice…to protect the ones we love.”

Here is a PDF of testing locations from Maplewood:

Download (PDF, 116KB)

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