Yes, You Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Safely During the Pandemic—Here's How to Do It

A little extra planning is really all it takes, experts say

mr. make-a-plate for thanksgiving dinner during pandemic

The Spruce / Ellen Lindner

When the air turns crisp and trees bid farewell to their leaves, you know the holidays are just around the corner. But as with everything in 2020, this Thanksgiving will look much different from gatherings just a year ago.

The coronavirus pandemic has put the United States on pause, with many families running only essential errands since March. After many months of living in the multipurpose workspace and school rooms that they call home, people are itching to take back some of the familiar aspects of life—including holidays.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released updated guidelines and strongly recommended not traveling at all during Thanksgiving.

"Right now, especially as we are seeing exponential growth in cases and the opportunity to translocate disease or infection from one part of the country to another leads, to our recommendation to avoid travel at this time," Dr. Henry Walke, COVID-19 incident manager for the CDC, told reporters in a conference call, according to a CNN report.

“I encourage my patients to consider opportunities to be creative with celebrations this year,” says Dr. Mary Theoktisto, an infectious disease specialist with Baylor Scott & White Health. “Try new versions of long-standing traditions, engage all ages in holiday planning to allow each participant the chance to weigh in on what would make the holiday special for them. While this has been a challenging year, there is much to be thankful for."

Who Is Coming to Thanksgiving Dinner? 

The CDC recommends keeping the party to as few people as possible. The CDC says marking the day with those in your immediate household is the safest bet.

If you will be including grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends, having a discussion early on can help direct planning.  

“Family right now is so important and creating those memories is so important,” says Sara Chalmers, owner of Sara Chalmers Elite Events in Tulsa, OK. “Children are sponges for what they hear and see and what’s around them. Even if you are home with your family of four, it’s amazing to be creating the memories at this time. You just do your due diligence beforehand.”

And what does that due diligence look like?

“You should ask your guests about their activities before arriving to your home,” says Theoktisto. “Have they been social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing their hands? You may want to also request that they quarantine for 14 days prior to the celebration.”

Family members with an increased risk of illness should consider staying home.

Where Will Thanksgiving Take Place? 

Consider the Region

Transmission risk is higher in areas with a higher number of COVID cases, and guests coming in from higher-risk areas also factor into the safety equation.

Then Consider the Size of the Home and Outdoor Space

Think about the size of the host’s home as well. Cramming the clan into a small space is cozy, but not necessarily safe. If your plans call for a full house—and local weather is likely to cooperate—consider moving at least some of the celebration outdoors, where people can spread out and the virus is less likely to be an issue.

When nature isn’t an option, consider which family member has the most ideal space for distancing, both for dining and socializing.

If You're Hosting

If Thanksgiving will be at your home this year, you can keep guests safe a number of ways. Masks are a must, except when eating or drinking. You can also take a quick forehead temperature reading when folks arrive. To encourage extra care during the gathering, make sure you have plenty of hand sanitizer as well. Chalmers suggests setting up sanitation stations around your home or other party site to make it as simple as possible for attendees to avoid the spread of any germs.

How Should You Travel for Thanksgiving?

The time before and just after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest travel periods. But 2020 has thrown tradition out the window.

“In previous years, people have planned holiday travel a lot earlier on,” said Jeff Traugot of New York City’s Traugot Travel, Inc. “This year, I have clients who have planned holiday travel and some are more wait and see. Everything is fluid.”

He also sees a trend this year toward hitting the open road. “A lot of people are taking road trips and booking a lot more hotels in the area than in the past. More people are staying in hotels than houses or other properties.”

Staying in a hotel has a different feel as well. “I am setting expectations with clients,” Traugot said. “Where maybe there was housekeeping twice a day, now it’s once or every couple of days. A lot of the dining options are closed or there might just be room service.”

Regardless of how you travel, don’t forget a variety of masks for everyone and a good stock of hand sanitizer if you aren’t able to wash hands with hot, soapy water.

How Should the Actual Thanksgiving Meal Be Different?

Sitting down to a family-style feast is so 2019. This year’s meal will require a bit of creativity and extra precautions.

Keep It Clean

“It’s important to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after touching food,” says Theoktisto. “It is also still crucial to safely handle and continue to cook foods to their recommended cooking temperature to prevent foodborne illness. You may want to switch up the celebration this year and encourage guests to bring their own food.”

Consider Asking One Person to Make Plates

If your gang really loves Aunt Liz’s green bean casserole and Grandma’s pumpkin pie, you can still do a modified potluck meal. Have one person fix the plates to reduce the number of touches on serving utensils, or try something fun with some of the foods. 

Get Creative: Try Miniatures

“Everyone loves miniature versions of things; it’s cute and fun,” says Chalmers. “For one party, we made individual charcuterie cones instead of a board. People loved it. You can make individual pies and sides as well.”

Just a Few Cooks, Please

Also, don’t have too many cooks in the kitchen. Limiting access to food prep helps everyone stay safe while they enjoy the bounty.

No matter how you and your loved ones mark Thanksgiving 2020, remember that the people are the most important part. A little planning and a few precautions can help keep those gathered around the table a little safer.