Usually there are around 30 guests at Melanie Gaffin’s house on Thanksgiving.
This year, she’s planning for 10.
“Nobody including myself feels safe all being together,” Gaffin explained.
For families in New Jersey and across the nation, the coronavirus pandemic is turning Thanksgiving — ordinarily the antithesis of social distancing — into a tangled web of health concerns, disrupted traditions and heartache.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has warned that traditional Thanksgiving gatherings could lead to coronavirus outbreaks. Gov. Phil Murphy has urged residents to assemble only with their immediate household, or perhaps a small number of relatives and friends, and if possible hold the dinner celebration outside.
Gaffin’s scaled-down gathering will not include her mother, 79, and her 87-year-old father.
“My parents — and I’ve never, ever not have them here on Thanksgiving — they just feel it’s safer for them to be home,” Gaffin said.
Three of her 10 guests are currently attending college out of state, and Gaffin said she will require a negative COVID-19 test from the students. Everyone will wear face masks when filling up their plates.
The sliding door in the dining room will stay open, no matter how cold it gets outside. That’s to help with ventilation.
Gaffin added that she considered taking everyone’s temperatures at her front door, then concluded that wouldn’t be necessary.
“I’m just going to make it work,” Gaffin said of her hosting plan.
While Gaffin is anticipating compliance from her guests, other hosts may not be so fortunate.
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist and author, noted that many Americans remain a world apart on coronavirus safeguards — from those refusing to leave their home, to others who throwing “caution to the wind.”
What happens when both sides, as seems inevitable, wind up at the same Thanksgiving gathering?
“I think most people are going to try to meet in the middle somewhere,” Kennedy-Moore said.
Still, laying down some firm rules in advance can help, said William FitzGerald, a professor at Rutgers University/Camden who has written on avoiding political arguments during Thanksgiving.
“If you’re willing to host, whether that’s out of a sense of obligation or excitement, I think you need to have some clear house rules announced upfront. You need to tell all of your guests, in a polite or clear way, what those expectations are,” he said.
Even so, things could still go awry.
“You have the issue of ‘Crazy Uncle Frank’ showing up, knowing he’s supposed to wear a mask, and not wearing it,” FitzGerald said.
In keeping with Murphy’s recommendation, some are planning to brave the late-fall weather by hosting an outdoor dinner.
Joan Yesner is planning to gather with her family — including her mom, 83, and dad, 87 — around a table set up in the driveway.
If it rains, they will switch to the garage, which she and her husband have been cleaning out. Propane heaters have been ordered.
“My family and I take COVID very seriously,” said Yesner, the oldest of three children.
“My brothers are as COVID-safe as I am. We are all on the same page,” Yesner said.
Yesner said she has decided not to cook, as food preparation and distribution also comes with a risk. Instead, she’s planning to order turkey bowls from Wawa for everyone.
Her father, she said, briefly objected.
“My father, he’s a big eater. He said, Joanie, is that going to be enough? I said, dad, I’ll get you two turkey bowls,” Yesner said.
This will not be the first time during the pandemic that her parents have dined in her driveway.
“It’s unprecedented times. We’re in a worldwide pandemic. We just can’t pretend it’s not there,” Yesner said.
While she does let family members inside to use the restroom, she said she considered getting a porta potty. Then her husband objected and pointed out it would cost $150 per week.
“My husband put his foot down. I thought it was a good idea,” she said.
With Thanksgiving more than three weeks away, some are still discussing their plans, such as Danielle Sangiuliano. Her parents are around the block and her in-laws are three blocks away.
“We could sit on each other’s porch and wave,” she said, laughing.
“If we do come together, it will most likely be at my house. We would probably have it outside in the yard and an outdoor heater,” Sangiuliano said.
Kennedy-Moore said that, no matter how anyone feels about getting together, empathy to all viewpoints is key.
“We shouldn’t be looking for who is right, and who is wrong. It’s just a plain fact that the numbers are going up” she said, referring to transmission rates.
“It’s also a fact that we’re all tired of this and desperately wish things could go back to normal,” she said.
Kennedy-Moore is planning to get together at her sister’s home, with about 10 others, for an outdoor celebration.
Food will be passed out in takeout containers. She’s in charge of desserts, which she’ll create while wearing a mask.
“We’re not yet sure whether our parents are going to come. We’ve been having lots of conversations about what’s OK, what’s people’s risk tolerance,” she said.
Kennedy-Moore added that they might move their celebration to a different day, explaining, “We’re going to pick the day with the best weather.”
FitzGerald said he is staying home with his wife, daughter and their dog. Typically, they have gotten together with 14 to 18 guests. He sees the much smaller gathering as being socially responsible.
“If every family says we’re not going to give each other COVID, then guess what? A lot of people are going to get COVID at Thanksgiving,” Fitzgerald said.
Gaffin is moving ahead with her plans. Instead of three turkeys, she’s planning one large and one small turkey.
“I always like leftovers,” she said.
She is planning to seat 7 at one table in the dining room, and four at the kitchen table.
She acknowledges already missing some usual attendees, like her brother and his wife, who will not be attending.
“You know what? We’ll have next year,” she said.
Technology will ease the pain of separation. At some point, they are planning a family Zoom call, to discuss what all feel most grateful for this Thanksgiving.
Gaffin already knows what she will say.
“I am most thankful for my loving and supportive family, especially during the pandemic,” she said.
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Rob Jennings may be reached at [email protected].