Decisions over whether to gather have turned divisive, as experts warn that Thanksgiving includes the key ingredients — a shared, indoor meal and inter-household mixing — that could spark an even worse surge in cases in the coming weeks.
It’s a scenario that officials in other countries are trying to avert ahead of other upcoming holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s.
“From Australia, this looks like a mindbogglingly dangerous chapter in the out-of-control American COVID-19 story,” Ian Mackay, an associate professor of virology at the University of Queensland, wrote in an email. “Sadly, for some, this will be a Thanksgiving that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.”
Australia has returned to a large degree of normality in recent weeks, with mass sporting events and even the iconic Sydney Opera House reopening.
But it only did so after strict regional lockdowns and border closures.
Mackay compared large numbers of Americans traveling for Thanksgiving to China’s Lunar New Year celebrations in early 2020 that inadvertently helped spread the virus at a crucial early stage. In some ways, this might be worse.
“This time we all know where the virus is, we know how bad it can be, and we can be sure that this event will cause more sickness and some deaths,” Mackay said. The virus “will thrive among all the chances to trigger superspreading events among households and larger gatherings and parties. This is its way.”
Yap Boum, a Cameroonian epidemiologist and regional representative for Epicenter Africa, the research arm of Doctors Without Borders, said the willingness of some Americans to risk their and their family’s health to gather for a single day has left him befuddled.
“From my perspective, I found it really crazy,” he said of large numbers of Americans choosing to travel for Thanksgiving. “On one hand, you see the people dying, on the other hand … you see that the vaccine is close. Why can’t you wait despite, of course … the mental challenge?”
International news outlets and foreign journalists are covering Thanksgiving travel in the United States extensively, with a mixture of concern, bewilderment and schadenfreude.
“No nation suffers as much from corona as America — and yet in a few days a large part of the population here will meet to celebrate,” a U.S. correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper wrote this week.
“Like mask-wearing, Thanksgiving has become another front in the country’s partisan left- and right-wing culture wars,” the Sydney Morning Herald observed.
Noting that many people were still planning to travel by air this week, London-based journalist James Ball tweeted that the United States was in “absolutely deadly, delusional denial about Coronavirus.”
“It goes well, well beyond Trump,” added Ball, who works as an editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Many outlets focused on signs of economic turmoil in the United States, with Italian newspaper il Fatto Quotidiano running photos of long lines of cars at food banks under the headline “hungry at Thanksgiving.”
But some Europeans also compared the situation to their own governments’ pushes to partially reopen around Christmas, the most important celebration of the year in much of Europe, where cases have also surged this fall.
“America is bracing for danger this week,” Jennifer Beam Dowd, deputy director of the University of Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Here we have time to encourage safe Christmas alternatives rather than family Russian roulette,” she added.
France has been in a strict lockdown since late October, but officials announced this week that restrictions will be slowly lifted ahead of Christmas and people will be allowed to travel and gather for the holiday — as long as cases remain below a certain threshold.
“But I call upon your sense of responsibility,” French President Emmanuel Macron said this week. “This will certainly not be a Christmas like the others.”
Germany is also in partial lockdown, with a draft proposal suggesting loosened restrictions around Christmas. England is set to lift its lockdown early next month, with the next set of restrictions implemented by region.
David Heymann, an American professor of infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that European officials trying to manage Christmas gatherings will probably determine their holiday restrictions before they can glean many lessons from what happens in the United States in the weeks after Thanksgiving.
“By the time you see the impact of Thanksgiving, it will be three weeks later, very close to Christmas and people will already have plans made,” he said.
Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated in mid-October, and officials documented an increase in cases after some opted for indoor gatherings that day.
Amrit Boese, a research biologist who worked extensively on coronavirus research at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said she would now urge Americans to see that as a cautionary tale — and rethink any plans to gather.
“Don’t visit people from outside your household,” she said. “Don’t have people over. Just stay home.”
Beyond the risk of catching coronavirus, she said, people should consider that when hospitals are more overwhelmed, the experience of falling seriously ill also becomes even more lonely and isolating.
“Is it worth it knowing you may give something to your parents or grandparents?” she pondered. “Let’s say they end up in a hospital in an ICU. If it’s overcapacity or at capacity, you’re not going to get the kind of care you’d get if it wasn’t in that situation. Plus people can’t visit you.”
“The loneliness of that part of it is something that I would consider,” she said.
Boum said he sees the problem as a complex web of individual choices and broader U.S. failures to unite citizens behind one common message about the dangers of the virus.
“That’s the challenge of freedom. People have the freedom of choice and everyone considers that he can decide for himself,” Boum said. “But what people forget is your freedom stops where someone else’s freedom is starting. … We are not free to harm other people who are more vulnerable."