How to plan a COVID-safe Thanksgiving, week-by-week

How to plan a COVID-safe Thanksgiving, week-by-week

COVID-19 isn't going anywhere, but that doesn't mean Thanksgiving is canceled.

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean Thanksgiving is canceled. (Unsplash/)

For many people, Thanksgiving means traveling or hosting family and friends, greeting them at the door with hugs or kisses, and then crowding together around a table to share a sumptuous feast. Unfortunately, all of these activities are great ways to transmit COVID-19. And as Thanksgiving approaches, the novel coronavirus is still surging across the United States.

The safest way to celebrate Turkey Day is with your immediate household—or the people already included in your social-isolation bubble. But there are ways to gather with extended family and friends while minimizing your chances of catching or spreading COVID-19. The basic strategies for preventing COVID-19 at Thanksgiving are the same ones you use every day: masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing.

“Particularly if you can communicate concerns to other family members ahead of time… these are events that we can talk about where risk can really be reduced appropriately,” says Cameron Wolfe, an infectious diseases physician at the Duke University School of Medicine.

But this holiday season is not the time for impromptu dinners and last-minute trips, masked or otherwise: If you want to have something resembling a traditional meal with folks you don’t already live with, the time to start preparing is now.

“I think ultimately the message is that this can be done [fairly] safely, but it needs some planning,” Wolfe says.

Here’s an evidence-based timeline you can start following now to ensure your Turkey Day festivities are as COVID-proof as possible.

October 31: Get your flu shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting your seasonal flu vaccine before the end of October. It takes about two weeks for your immune system to ramp up and develop antibodies after you get your flu shot, says Yonatan Grad, an infectious diseases researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, so it’s important not to put this off if you have hopes of traveling during the holidays.

The flu vaccine won’t shield you from COVID-19, but it could spare you the misery of catching another respiratory ailment just in time for Thanksgiving—which would mean having to self-isolate instead of joining a celebration.

“Heaven forbid we inadvertently end up with all the confusion that can come with people getting symptoms from the flu and [thinking] it’s COVID,” Wolfe says. “It’s just a myriad of complexity that flu will add to this season if we’re not careful.”

The end of October is also a good time to check out the CDC’s detailed advice for preventing COVID-19 transmission at holiday celebrations, including Thanksgiving. Knowing best practices well in advance will empower you to have productive conversations with your would-be fellow revelers about how you’ll all behave before, during, and after your feast.

November 1: It’s time to talk turkey

The first step in preparing for a pandemic-era Thanksgiving is deciding whether you will host or attend an in-person gathering. If your family is far-flung and includes people who are older or have health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, this may be the year to consider a virtual celebration.

“My family has had a really hard think about that; we usually gather together in Oklahoma from all over the country,” Wolfe says. “We have great-grandmothers in their nineties, we have parents and in-laws who are in their seventies and medically a little more infirm—it just didn’t make sense to bring lots of people together in the sort of way that we would usually do.”

If you do decide to travel for Thanksgiving, check what restrictions the city or state you’ll be celebrating in has on gathering sizes. There are a number of variables you should consider when deciding how many people to bring together for the holiday beyond legality, too. “It’s going to depend upon community spread in your area and the areas where people are coming from, it’s going to depend upon the size of your home and how easy it is for you to social distance either in your home or your backyard, and, most importantly, it’s going to depend upon how compliant all of your guests are going to be,” says Shawn Gibbs, dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University.

It’s best to set some ground rules about what precautions everyone will take before the event and what the rules for your gathering will be.

“Have a conversation with friends and loved ones so that you understand what people’s concerns are and that everyone is basically on the same page as to what the approach will be in order to create the safest environment possible under the circumstances,” Grad says. “Having discussions about that beforehand seems to me like the best way to maintain good rapport and family peace.”

A good Thanksgiving pod will, at minimum, fit the following criteria: Few enough people for individual households to distance within the allotted space; no one who is unable or unwilling to follow serious precautions before and during the event; and no one who is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

November 4: Plan your voyage

Once you’ve decided on a strategy with your Thanksgiving pod, you can start making travel arrangements. If it’s an option, driving to your gathering with people from your immediate household is generally the safest mode of transportation. If you can’t make the trip by car, find out what COVID-19 procedures the company you’ll be traveling with has adopted. You can also check out the CDC’s recommendations for assessing your risk of being exposed to COVID-19 on different modes of transportation.

Scientists are still working to determine just how risky it is to fly while COVID is raging. Wolfe points out that planes themselves might not be so bad—they have good air filtration and circulation—but that any transit that involves mixing with strangers is inherently dangerous. “I’m less concerned about the actual plane itself,” he says. “But I think the challenges are significant in the waiting areas of the airports…they’re often very busy, congregated, mingling places.”

Trains and buses can be difficult places to stay physically distant from other people. “Buses may actually be perhaps the hardest because there’s really no space to get up and move,” Wolfe says. However, he adds, every form of travel carries some risk.

This is likewise true of spending the night outside the safe embrace of your own home. If you won’t be staying with your loved ones, find out what practices your hotel or inn uses to prevent COVID-19 transmission, the CDC advises. And if at all possible, avoid hostels with shared bathrooms and other spaces.

November 11: Get serious about social distancing

Hopefully, you’re already routinely practicing social distancing, washing your hands frequently, and wearing a mask in public. About two weeks before your gathering, though, it’s time to take your efforts up a notch.

Wolfe suggests that when you’re preparing to travel, you readopt the level of precautions you took back at the start of the pandemic. “In March and April, we were extremely cautious about heading out and congregating and doing things that might expose us,” he says. Your area may now have low enough case rates to make casual trips to the grocery store or outdoor cocktails with a friend fairly safe, but those activities still raise your risk of infection—and now is the time to cut them out. “You can feel much more comfortable about moving forward to an event knowing that your risk is as little as possible for inadvertently carrying COVID into a larger family gathering,” he says. During this time, stay home whenever possible and avoid joining get-togethers, dining at restaurants, and taking other trips.

If you have a job that requires you to interact with people outside of your household, you may not be able to adhere to strict enough social distancing to make a holiday gathering as safe as it should be. If you’re determined to see some friends or family regardless, make sure they understand your limitations, and be sure to follow as many safety guidelines (including at your workplace) as possible.

As your holiday plans approach, it’s also a good idea to be mindful of how many COVID-19 cases there are in your area. However, given how prevalent the disease remains across the country and beyond—and how common it is for people to spread the virus while asymptomatic—you shouldn’t relax your social distancing preparations based on those numbers, even if everybody involved lives in a state with relatively low incidence of COVID-19, Wolfe says. Instead, you might reconsider plans in—or that involve people traveling from—an area that’s seeing a particularly sharp surge.

If you have the luxury of traveling early in the month and quarantining at the location of your Thanksgiving gathering before visiting other people, Grad says, that strategy could add another layer of protection. “Whatever risk of acquisition you’ve sustained during the travel you’ll be able to mitigate by quarantining after you’ve arrived.”

November 19: Touch base about logistics

In the week before your dinner, touch base about how the meal is going to be prepared and served. “You need to really get logistics down pat so it’s not a free-for-all with eight people in the kitchen,” Wolfe says. Many of the typical practices during a large family meal are unsafe during a pandemic, and folks are bound to slip into old habits once they’re together—especially if they’re drinking. So it’s crucial to set plans and ground rules about who will be in the kitchen ahead of time.

The good news: It’s probably not inherently risky to eat a turkey cooked by someone outside your household. There’s currently no evidence of people catching COVID-19 by eating or handling food or by drinking water, according to the CDC. “It may be possible that people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, such as a food package or dining ware that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes,” the agency advises. “However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Still, it’s best to limit how much contact everyone has while the feast comes together. The safest option is for guests to bring their own food. If you’re preparing food for people who don’t live in your home, wear a mask while you do so and keep the number of people in the kitchen to a minimum.

“Consider doing it cafeteria-style, where you have one person who is preparing all the plates and then handing them out as they go along,” Gibbs says. “That way you’re minimizing the number of people who are having contact with the food and the utensils versus passing it around the table or having everyone line up or go through a buffet.”

If the person hosting the gathering lives in a mild climate and has outdoor space, take advantage of it. “You’re going to really reduce your risk if you can do this outside on a patio or in a backyard,” Gibbs says. Consider sacrificing a little comfort in the name of safety: Even if it’s chilly, you might make an outdoor dinner work by utilizing heaters, investing in a fire pit, or just making sure everyone brings a warm sweater and some sturdy socks. Moving dinner earlier in the day or serving hot beverages could make outdoor Thanksgiving more feasible, too. But remember: An outdoor setting is still unsafe if guests get too close to one another or keep their masks off for extended periods.

If indoors is your only option, plan on opening some windows to increase the airflow within your house, which research shows lowers the risk of transmission somewhat, and make sure there’s ample room for individual households to sit at least six feet apart.

November 21: Get tested for COVID-19

Taking a COVID-19 test before your gathering can give you some extra peace of mind, but it’s not a necessary step, Wolfe says. It’s also not an excuse for eschewing other risk-prevention methods. “The other mitigation efforts are much more valuable,” he notes.

The closer to the day of the actual gathering you can get tested, the better. However, when you schedule your test, you’ll also have to consider how quickly you can receive your results. Some airlines and airports are now offering access to COVID-19 testing through at-home kits, clinics, or at the terminal. A number of domestic and international destinations require a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure or upon arrival.

“Remember there are different types of testing out there,” Gibbs says. “The PCR-based tests are going to be the most accurate ones; the antigen-based testing you can get a lot more rapidly, but they’re not as accurate.” Depending on the type of test and where you take it, you might have to wait from 15 minutes to several days to find out whether you have tested positive.

Diagnostic tests aren’t 100 percent accurate, and it’s possible to become infected in the time between when you get tested and arrive at your gathering. And if you do become infected, it’s unlikely that a test will detect the virus immediately. That’s why it’s important to intensify your social distancing efforts both before and after you get a test.

“It’s going to take several days from exposure for you to build up enough virus in your system to allow it to be picked up with PCR or antigen,” Gibbs says. “So it’s good to get tested, but getting tested doesn’t take away from the need to social distance and doesn’t take away the need to wear face coverings.” If possible, he recommends getting tested five to eight days after you might have been exposed to COVID-19.

“If you have a known exposure to someone who has COVID or if you have concerning symptoms, I would caution against even taking one negative test as being reason to be assured that you are yourself not infected,” Grad says. “Tests are quite valuable, but have to be interpreted within context.”

November 25: Stay vigilant while traveling

It’s go-time. Regardless of how you travel to your gathering, try to bring hand sanitizer and an extra mask. When possible, bring your own food for the trip, use touchless payment, and check in or reserve tickets online. If you’re driving, you should take the same precautions at a rest stop that you would in any other public space. “That risk is really no different than going to the shops anywhere else,” Wolfe says.

Still, it’s best to decide ahead of time what you’ll need at the rest stop, Gibbs says. Back in April, he and his wife moved from Indiana to Texas. “We devised a plan so we limited our stops; we drove almost continuously,” he says. When they had to stop, he says, “I would gas up the car, she would go into the convenience store [and] get us food.”

If you’ll be taking a cab or riding with people outside your immediate household, try to sit as far from the driver and other passengers as possible, keep the windows cracked, and avoid the recirculated-air setting. On trains or buses, keep a row of seats between you and other travelers if you can. Travel during off-peak hours when possible. Consider getting an N95 mask or P100 respirator to offer additional protection, or adding goggles or a face shield to protect your eyes.

Remember that waiting areas and airports are likely the riskiest parts of traveling on planes and public transit. Don’t stop for a sit-down meal, don’t take off your mask, and stay aware of how close you are to other people. “Make sure that you’re maintaining your own personal physically-distanced bubble away from others,” Gibbs says. “We’re in the midst of a pandemic; there’s nothing that anyone can really do to stay 100 percent safe. What you’re doing is limiting your exposures and reducing your risk.”

While traveling, you should also be extra-vigilant about not touching your face, and washing or sanitizing your hands after you touch surfaces such as handrails, elevator buttons, and ticket machines. For more detailed travel information, you can also check out the CDC’s guidance on traveling during the pandemic and how to protect yourself on different types of transportation.

November 26: Enjoy a socially-distanced Thanksgiving meal

If you aren’t feeling well on the day of your gathering, it’s best to err on the side of caution and bow out. But assuming all of your careful plans have so far played out successfully, there are several steps you should take to keep everyone healthy at your Thanksgiving feast. For starters: no smooching.

“As difficult as it is, you’re going to want to limit hugs, you’re going to want to limit handshakes, and you’re definitely going to want to limit the kisses on the cheeks,” Gibbs says. If you have a family member who is insistent on some kind of squeeze, check out this guide to the safest ways of showing physical affection.

If you’re the host, pick up some extra masks and put a bottle of hand sanitizer by the door for your guests. “There are certainly ways of making people appreciate that you as the host are thinking carefully about their safety, but at the same time not being so draconian as to make the meal impossible,” Wolfe says.

When you aren’t eating, try to keep your mask on as much as possible. “It’s not typically what we think about for Thanksgiving, where our instinctive feeling is, ‘I’m going to see my extended family, why would I want to put this barrier up between us?’” Wolfe says. “But I think this is a year when you can forgive yourself for being a little awkward with mask-wearing.”

During the gathering, keep some space between yourself and your fellow revelers. This is especially important while you’re tucking into your feast, as masks will be off and spittle may fly. If you can, spread out across the room. Immediate households can crowd together; what’s important is keeping all the gathering’s individual social bubbles separate. You’ve made it this far without being reckless, so don’t ruin it by crowding around a dining table together.

“When you’re going to a gathering with extended family, you unfortunately have to treat them just like you would going to any other event,” Gibbs says. “Our big concern has been large gatherings, but now we’re seeing a lot of clusters associated with small family gatherings as well, so now is not the time to let down your guard.”

If different households must share a bathroom during the event, hosts should consider setting out paper towels for drying hands, as well as basic cleaning supplies like disinfecting wipes so guests can wipe down surfaces before they leave.

November 27: Don’t drop your guard

After you emerge from the haze of turkey, tofurkey, or turturkeykey, you might be tempted to do a little holiday shopping. If so, stick to shopping online and avoid crowded stores.

While you’re on vacation or visiting for the holidays, it’s natural to want to relax, Wolfe says. “If people are being appropriately cautious, they would view a Thanksgiving trip with all the same measures of safety that they would do normally and not let the holiday festivities lead to some decisions that they would regret,” he says.

Throughout your trip, pay attention to how you’re feeling and be alert for symptoms of COVID-19 just like you normally would, Gibbs says.

The same precautions that you took before traveling apply on the other end, too. After your journey back home, be especially mindful about staying at least six feet away from other people and wearing your mask for two weeks, and follow any quarantine requirements in your home state.

Whether you’re celebrating through Zoom or in-person, there’s a good chance that Thanksgiving will feel weirder or more subdued this year than usual. “If it looks a little bit different than last year, that’s probably a good thing,” Wolfe says. “In fact, if it looks exactly the same as last year you probably did it wrong.”

And remember: this pandemic will not last forever. Really. Your extra caution this year will help ensure that next year can be a lot closer to normal.

“Even if we’re making choices that prevent the large family gatherings, there are still ways to stay connected with each other,” Grad says. “And hopefully in the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to return to the kinds of large familial gatherings that we’re accustomed to.”

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