Thanksgiving 2020: How to celebrate safely and smoothly

Washington Post illustrations; iStock

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season rapidly approaching, many public health experts have united around a single message: Expect festivities to look very different this year.

Cases of the novel coronavirus are surging again nationwide, coinciding with cooler weather that has made outdoor gatherings less feasible in many parts of the country, and experts say that adding out-of-state travel and multigenerational holiday celebrations to the mix could send infection rates skyrocketing if the proper safeguards aren’t taken.

“It is unfortunate, because that’s such a sacred part of American tradition, the family gathering around Thanksgiving, but that is a risk,” Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told “CBS Evening News” in October. Fauci, who is 79, noted that his three children will not be traveling home for the holiday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended a similarly cautious approach. In recently updated guidance recommending against holiday travel, the agency emphasized that the “safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with” — meaning relatives from out of state, children away at college and really anyone who doesn’t live with you probably shouldn’t be joining you at the table. But for those who want to connect with their loved ones this holiday season, we have compiled advice from experts on how to celebrate without increasing your risk of contracting or spreading a potentially deadly virus.


Traveling during a pandemic involves “a nail-biting level of complexity,” Neil J. Sehgal, a health policy expert with the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told The Washington Post’s Dana Hedgpeth in October. So if you have to travel, planning is critical to reduce your chances of bringing the coronavirus with you.

Allow enough time to self-quarantine and get tested. Recommendations for how long you should self-quarantine have varied among experts. Some say at least several days ahead of traveling may be adequate, while others have suggested 14 days for maximum safety.

Before leaving, you should also get tested for the coronavirus, preferably with a PCR test, and obtain a negative result. But don’t let a single negative test lull you into a false sense of security. “The test is only a snapshot in time,” said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

And depending on how you decide to travel, experts say, you may want to self-quarantine again after getting to your destination in case you were exposed to the virus along the way. State travel guidelines will also influence your quarantine and testing plan.

Drive alone, if you can. A solo road trip, or driving with people you know are low risk, has been recommended among experts as one of the safest ways to travel. “If you’re in your own car, then you’re controlling your exposures,” said Aaron Milstone, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. When driving, you just need to focus on being careful anytime you’re outside your car.

There may be more chances of potential, sometimes prolonged, contact with strangers when traveling by plane, train or bus.

Try to travel at nonpeak times. Flight-search data suggests that the Saturday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving could be among the highest traffic days for airports. The Sunday after the holiday is expected to be the most popular return date. If possible, also consider traveling at night.

Be vigilant about safety. Whether you’re driving, flying or taking a train or bus, make sure you’re following public health recommendations, such as mask-wearing, practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing, whenever possible.

Prepare by stocking up on extra face masks, hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol and sanitizing wipes. Face shields or goggles can serve as an added layer of protection.

The CDC also recommends getting a flu shot before traveling.


This holiday season is going to be different. It just is,” Barbara Alexander, president-elect of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told The Post’s Joel Achenbach in October. “It’s not what I want — but this is the pandemic we’ve been handed, so we’re going to have to celebrate differently.”

Think hard about the risks. Experts are aware of the emotional toll that may be exacted upon families who are separated for the holidays this year. But they have continued to emphasize the importance of thoroughly assessing all the risks gathering could pose to you and your loved ones.

For instance, if you live with someone who may have a greater chance of developing a serious case of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the CDC suggests thinking about what potential risk you could pose to that person by attending a holiday event. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, encouraged people to “reach for the delayed gratification this year.”

“Because what you don’t want is to celebrate this year and have fewer people at next year’s table,” Walensky said.

Keep the guest list small. The fewer people there are, the lower the chances will be that one of your guests could be infected. An interactive map recently developed by a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows how the risk that there is at least one virus-positive person at an event increases as gatherings get larger in different places.

Beyond not inviting people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus in the past 14 days or who are feeling unwell, you should also be wary of those who could have had close contact with an infected person. The CDC recently updated its definition of “close contact” to be someone who was within six feet of an infected individual for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.

Arrange an outdoor meal, if possible. The coronavirus can spread through tiny droplets and particles that hang in the air for extended periods of time, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Although eating indoors in restaurants or with people outside of your household has largely been discouraged, the CDC considers hosting a small outdoor dinner a moderate-risk activity.

Even when outdoors, your guests should be seated at least six feet apart, and everyone should keep their masks on when not eating or drinking. If multiple households are attending, sit them at separate, distanced tables.

Think twice about gathering in sealed tents, which may be akin to “creating indoor dining outdoors,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University. If you are considering tent dining, consider tailgate or pop-up tents with two or more open walls.

Stock up on hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. Place bottles of hand sanitizer at each table — either one large bottle or a travel-size bottle at each seat.

Although the coronavirus is not believed to be commonly spread through contact with tainted surfaces, the CDC still recommends cleaning and disinfecting places and items that are frequently touched. Some high-touch surfaces include tables, doorknobs, counter tops, toilets, faucets and sinks, among others.

Exercise caution around shared food. A traditional holiday meal with platters of food being passed around the table or a buffet-style setup is not recommended.

Limit the number of people you have in the kitchen or any other areas where food preparation is happening, and avoid multiple people touching serving spoons. The CDC suggests either having guests bring their own food and drink or appointing one person to serve the food if you do plan on sharing. That person should be cleaning their hands well and often.

Improve ventilation of indoor spaces. If you choose to dine indoors, open the windows, try to maintain distance and keep your mask on when you aren’t eating or drinking. Think about eating in a large living room space where you can more easily spread out. Fans positioned at windows facing outward could also help with ventilation.

Keep your plans flexible. Given the uncertainty around community infection rates, potential exposures and weather, experts say it’s critical to keep an open mind about how the holidays may look this year and be prepared to adapt. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be celebrated on Nov. 26.

“Go with the party on the date the forecast looks most forgiving,” Taryn Williford, lifestyle director at Apartment Therapy, told The Post’s Jura Koncius. “Everyone is working from home; nobody will be going shopping. You can be flexible about it. The important part is the gathering and connection with people.”

Go virtual. Put aside that Zoom fatigue and host a virtual gathering with friends and family this year.

Koncius interviewed experts about tips for a successful virtual holiday. Among them: Consider having a moderator who can make sure everyone is engaged and having fun. Dress up for the occasion if that’s something your family enjoys doing. You can also involve your guests in “a shared ritual,” such as sending out ingredients for a cocktail or a recipe for macaroni and cheese, or delving into family history.

“Anything you can do to make a memory, this is the year to reinvent traditions, for sure,” Williford told Koncius.


Consider these recipes and tips gathered by The Post’s Food team that will keep you and your guests satisfied without requiring hours of laborious work.

Scale down the meal. Instead of a whole turkey, think about preparing just the thighs, legs or breast, The Post’s Becky Krystal writes. Or swap the large bird for smaller options, such as a roast chicken, Cornish hens, duck or quail. You can also modify traditional side dishes by making adjustments to the sizes of your cooking pans or focusing more on ingredients such as fresh produce, which you can buy in the quantities you need.

“If Thanksgiving has been a stressful holiday for you as a cook, this is your reprieve,” cookbook author Cynthia Graubart told Krystal. “You can find a way to make it special, but it doesn’t have to be filled with stress and angst and anxiety.”

Try a sheet-pan dinner. What do turkey breast roulade with sweet potatoes, green beans and shallots; harissa turkey legs with sumac sweet potatoes; and Persian-style stuffed delicata squash with broccolini and carrots all have in common? They are all designed to be a whole meal for at least four guests that can be made on sheet pans.

Leave room for dessert. Regardless of whether you’ve taken up pandemic baking or not, check out these recipes for holiday desserts that feature many classic flavors and ingredients, such as pumpkin, apple, pecan and sweet potato, in ways that are both traditional and unexpected.

“One of the many great things about Thanksgiving desserts is that they can often be made in advance,” Krystal writes. “Less stress, more sweetness.”

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