Q: Can we celebrate Thanksgiving safely this year during the pandemic?
A: Yes, but we’re all going to have to accept that this will be a different holiday season than we are used to. Unfortunately, cases of COVID-19 are increasing, not only in Hamilton County and Tennessee, but across the country and world. While there is optimism about a vaccine being available soon, it will not be widely available before the holidays. So we’re going to need to continue our efforts to control the spread of this virus throughout the holidays.
Once again, you should keep to the basics. Cover your mouth and nose with a mask or cloth face covering; keep your distance; wash or sanitize your hands frequently; and if you are sick, stay home and away from others. The safest approach will be to have a family dinner with those who live in your household. Many of the new cases we are seeing appear to be related to small family and social gatherings. While many businesses are being very strict about compliance with infection control, it is natural to let down your guard when visiting with friends and family. However, whether you catch the virus from a stranger or from Aunt Janie who’s visiting from Florida, the result is the same.
Travel should be minimized at this time, especially if traveling to or from a place with increasing numbers of cases. Since cases are increasing all over the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
If you do decide to have a small gathering, you can lower your risk by having your event outdoors on small tables for each group sharing a household, with a minimum of 6 feet of separation between tables. Remember that masks should still be worn at all times except when sitting with your household members and eating. Make hand sanitizer available at all tables. Serve food on the tables rather than buffet style. And, hard as it might be, there can be no touching, hugging or even handshaking. As effective as masks are, they’re not perfect, and distance is still essential.
Activities after Thanksgiving dinner need to be considered also. If you have people over for a “moderate risk” outdoor meal, thank them for attending and ask them to please enjoy the games or holiday movies at their own homes. Masks and snacking are not compatible, and neither are alcohol and good judgment. Crowding a bunch of people into the family room will negate all your good efforts for a safe dinner.
Finally, shopping after Thanksgiving is a holiday tradition for many. This year, online shopping is obviously safer and preferable. If you do decide to shop in person, look for stores that are being conscientious about enforcing proper precautions, such as requiring masks and limiting how many customers are allowed at a time. I would strongly recommend avoiding crowded stores and the busiest shopping times.
The happiest Thanksgiving this year will be one that is safe and healthy. No one wants to spend Christmas in isolation or quarantine or, heaven forbid, in a hospital. A few basic precautions will make all the holidays brighter and merrier. For more information, you can visit the CDC holidays site at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html#thanksgiving.
Paul M. Hendricks, M.D., is health officer of the Hamilton County Health Department and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.