In Minot, N.D., where widespread skepticism about the coronavirus has accelerated one of the planet’s worst outbreaks, George Masters has decided to scrap his usual gathering of 19 relatives and celebrate instead with just his wife and kids.
And at Boston University, three roommates debated for days about the holiday: They didn’t want to risk endangering their parents, but they were homesick. So all three got tested — and headed home.
In any year, Thanksgiving can be trying, as families gather in close quarters with plenty of alcohol and intergenerational friction. Add an out-of-control virus, a recession that has left millions without work and a nation bitterly divided over the outcome of this month’s presidential election, and Thanksgiving 2020 is pushing holiday jitters to a new high.
With the daily tally of coronavirus cases skyrocketing nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against traveling and gathering in large groups.
“We had a great Thanksgiving last year and we’re looking forward to a great Thanksgiving next year, but today we’re going to call a timeout,” Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-diseases official, told USA Today. The 79-year-old physician and his wife plan to chat with their adult daughters by Zoom on Thursday.
Still, Thanksgiving remains a cozy harbor in a time of anxiety and uncertainty, a magnet drawing lonely Americans home despite the risk of potentially lethal infection. And this year, partisan politics has entered the calculus over whether it’s right to gather for the holiday.
Scott Atlas, President Trump’s coronavirus adviser, rejected the CDC’s admonitions, saying on Fox News Channel that “this kind of isolation is one of the unspoken tragedies of the elderly who are now being told, ‘Don’t see your family at Thanksgiving.’ For many people, this is their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not.”
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a right-wing youth organization, added on Twitter: “Every patriot should throw massive Thanksgiving celebrations. Make them fine and arrest all of us.”
Americans are responding with their now-accustomed discord. About 6 in 10 plan to celebrate with fewer people this year because of the pandemic, according to a Marist Poll survey in which 74 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans said they were shrinking their holiday gatherings.
Thanksgiving travel is clearly down, but roads and airports are by no means empty. AAA estimates that holiday traffic will decline by only about 10 percent this year.
Every car on the road, every seat on an airplane represents a decision pitting the deadly virus against the allure of family and home. There is pain in not seeing relatives, yet there is sometimes a silver lining, too: avoiding conflict.
It is rarely an easy choice.
'We're going to get through this'
For Mariah Rush, the decision to avoid the usual celebration was a cinch. “No one wants to be the one to give their 90-year-old grandmother covid,” said Rush, 21, a senior at Notre Dame.
But the family couldn’t just ignore Thanksgiving.
“It’s really tempting to want to be together,” Rush said. “I just don’t want, if something happens to my grandmother, this to be the last holiday season we have with her.”
The situation called for some ingenuity. So Rush’s mother, Carol Redding-Rush, and her mother’s two sisters came up with a creative, if awkward, plan for their usual potluck dinner: The three generations will gather at Redding-Rush’s home in South Bend, Ind. But Rush, her mother and her grandmother Alfreda Redding, 90, will dine in separate rooms while chatting via Zoom.
Redding appreciates that her family is looking out for her. “I’ll have a connection with them, which is important to me,” she said. “I’ve been here for this many years, and I kind of roll with the punches.”
Rush will still be anxious. She got a coronavirus test on campus Friday — a university requirement before any student may leave for the holiday, on penalty of being barred from spring classes. The test was negative, but she knows the results are not definitive, so she plans to quarantine until the get-together.
“People can think they are negative and then go to a family dinner and be superspreaders,” she said, “and that makes me really nervous.”
Redding-Rush shares her daughter’s concern. As a nurse at a hospital, she has seen firsthand the toll of the pandemic — including the arrival of refrigerator trucks to handle overflow from the hospital morgue.
Her message to her family: “We’re going to get through this. It won’t be forever.”
“I’m just happy that everybody in my family has sense enough to know that we cannot do what we used to do,” Redding-Rush said. “Nobody wants to be the one to kill Nana.”
'We follow the science'
Patricia Demirjian could enjoy her usual Thanksgiving feast, “a beautiful, elaborate affair” at a friend’s house in suburban Dayton where people also gather for New Year’s brunch, Easter and a fall rib fest. The big Thanksgiving party is proceeding as usual. But Demirjian, 74, won’t be there.
“There are people who don’t want to accept where we are,” she said. “That party is just lovely, and I’ll miss it. But I can’t do it.”
Demirjian takes three medications that leave her immunocompromised. She and her husband, a retired physician, have stayed mainly to themselves since March. They have outdoor meals “with a few friends I deem clean,” she said, but they get their food delivered and they leave newly arrived goods in the garage for a few days before opening them — a tip she learned from a Fauci interview.
“We follow the science,” Demirjian said. Not everyone in their social circle does the same. “I have friends around the corner who I can’t really be in contact with, because our political views are diametrically opposed. They go everywhere and they don’t wear masks. I can’t trust that.”
On Thursday, Demirjian plans to host a friend she does trust. They’ll gather at midday to take advantage of the sunshine. They’ll put blankets on their laps and dig into a meal Demirjian has been cooking for days: turkey and gravy, of course; creamed spinach; potatoes, mashed and sweet; and two kinds of biscuits.
“It’s not what we’re used to, but we’re not suffering,” she said.
Twelve hundred miles to the northwest, George Masters also decided to shrink the day’s festivities. He still plans to make his broccoli casserole; his daughter still plans to bring the mac and cheese. But the turkey will be half as big as the usual 20-pounder. And he has slimmed down the guest list, from 19 to six.
Although Masters and his family share a reluctance to embrace mandatory mask rules — “We all like Trump,” he said — the reality of the virus’s spread has become hard to ignore in North Dakota.
Since Oct. 1, the number of covid-19 deaths in the county where Minot sits had ballooned from 11 to 115 as of Tuesday. Masters knows two guys who have died of the disease — an Air Force buddy and a friend in town. The other day, his grandson and daughters came down with covid-like symptoms.
“It’s starting to hit a little closer to home,” said Masters, 70, who runs a classic-car restoration shop. “A lot of people have passed away.”
On Thursday, Masters expects little, if any, talk of politics. Although his family supports Trump, they recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect. “Whatever the majority chose, that’s it,” he said. “That’s how it works, and we just have to go with it.”
The gathering will be smaller than usual, but Masters said his family will still have a good time. He already knows what joke he’ll be telling:
“A guy goes to the doctor and asks, ‘When is this pandemic going to be over?’ And the doc says, ‘I don’t know — I’m a doctor, not a politician.’ ”
'You have to see Grandma and Grandpa'
Jerline Baltimore works as a patient safety advocate at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, as does her mother, Elvita Rojas. They have taken the virus seriously from the start. Rojas bought air cleaners and makes everybody take off their shoes before entering the house.
“My mom created a sanitation area,” said Baltimore, 33. “The person coming in has to take off their shoes, wipe them down and spray the bottoms with alcohol. Then they go directly to the bathroom to wash their hands.”
But even for Baltimore, a holiday without family was unthinkable. “You have to see Grandma and Grandpa at Thanksgiving,” she said.
In her Dominican American family, the holiday is normally an hours-long, multi-household affair: “You have dinner in your home, and then you spend the evening house-hopping. Neighbors come over with food. It’s a big, shared event. You’re continually eating and celebrating throughout the night.”
Instead of turkey, there’s pork. Baltimore’s grandmother used to roast a pig in a pit in the backyard. Side dishes are rice and pigeon peas, potato salad with mayo and beets, and a Dominican specialty, pasteles en hoja, painstakingly made by her aunt with plantain leaves, root vegetables, beef and spices.
This year, there will be no visits with neighbors, no delivery of meals to homeless people, no pork. (The family is going with fish to protest the treatment of workers at virus-ridden meatpacking plants.) Instead of last year’s 14-person dinner, there will be just six at the Thanksgiving table.
In the compromise between safety and togetherness, however, the family did find room for Baltimore’s stepfather, Henry Gibbs. Most years, he flies in from Boston. This year, he’s driving 1,542 miles in his Toyota 4Runner and quarantining at a Miami hotel — he brought his own linens — for more than two weeks so he can safely hug his grandsons Thursday.
“Everything revolves around the grandkids,” said Gibbs, 58. “I wanted to be here to reassure them that things will be okay.”
'This is what we should do'
This was the longest time Hanna Huang had ever been away from her family in Missoula, Mont.
In her first semester on campus, the Boston University student learned that “Boston is so different,” she said. “These three months have been a very intense and abrupt shift.”
Add the tight restrictions that the coronavirus has imposed on campus life, and Huang was hungry for home. She thought she could hold out until Christmas, but instead she flew there this week.
Huang’s parents left the decision to her. Her mother, River Yang, runs a preschool and is vigilant about coronavirus safety. But coming home for Thanksgiving, she said, is “what Hanna needs and what’s best for her.”
Still, Yang said, “we also want to make sure that we don’t put anybody in our school community at risk.” So, despite taking 28 coronavirus tests as part of the university’s rigorous regime, Huang is taking precautions.
Her parents met her at the airport with two cars so she could drive home by herself and change out of her clothes before entering the house. She is now quarantining in her bedroom, eating food her mother sets outside her door.
It was “extremely hard for Hanna’s little sister not to give her a hug,” her mother said. “It was frustrating, but we must prioritize our social responsibility.”
The family usually celebrates with relatives and friends, but it will be just the four of them on Thursday. Yang is hoping for nice weather so they can dine outside. If it’s too cold, they’ll eat indoors — and Huang will stay in her room.
“It sounds awkward and even a little cruel,” Yang said. “None of us likes it, but this is what we should do to minimize the risk to our community.”
Back in Boston, the university has told students who head home for Thanksgiving to stay there and finish the semester remotely. Which is exactly what Huang plans to do.
'We're not going to change each other's minds'
Although canceling Thanksgiving sounds like a total downer, the decision can have a silver lining. For Brittany Branyon, 33 and seven months pregnant, the virus offers a welcome excuse to avoid a big dinner with her in-laws in Auburn, Ala., that would probably be darkened by hostile arguments about politics.
“As we grew closer to the election, we realized that even if there wasn’t a pandemic,” the usual Thanksgiving celebration “wouldn’t have been a good choice,” she said.
Branyon teaches a course on philanthropy at Auburn University and is working toward a doctorate in public policy. She and her husband, Rick Bradshaw, an accountant, have spent the past few Thanksgivings at his parents’ house with about 20 relatives, neighbors and friends.
In the past, disagreements about politics — along with some racist and homophobic remarks — have made the day difficult for Branyon, who is more liberal than her husband’s family. “I have left the house before and after an antagonizing moment,” she said.
This year, Branyon said, her husband’s relatives have emerged as anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and die-hard Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen from the president.
“We’re not going to change each other’s minds,” she said.
Branyon’s father is also a big Trump backer, and she has not spoken to him since before Biden was declared the winner. “Fox called it and within two minutes my dad called, and I didn’t answer,” she said. “I gave it a couple weeks, and I have been calling him several times and haven’t gotten an answer.”
Father and daughter went through a similar standoff after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, she said.
On Thursday, Branyon is looking forward to an intimate Thanksgiving with her husband, their 7-year-old son and her mother, who acknowledges the risks of the virus, mostly stays home and is permitted inside Branyon’s protective family bubble.
They’ll cook a big meal, with plenty of leftovers for Branyon to freeze and eat after the baby arrives. They’ll have turkey smoked by one of her mother’s neighbors, cornbread dressing, homemade cranberry sauce, fudge brownies and possibly pumpkin chocolate-chip squares — the expectant mother’s craving.
Early in the day, Branyon will take time to teach her son the true story of the holiday, including “the good, the bad and the ugly.” And her husband will stop by his parents’ house for a short visit.
He’ll keep his mask on.
St. Martin reported from South Bend. Rozsa reported from Miami. Gheni Platenburg in Auburn and Joelle Renstrom in Boston contributed to this report.