By Michelle Konstantinovksy

Illustrated by Ryan Johnson.

With a pandemic Thanksgiving upon us, experts weigh in on ways to handle the shared feast. 

Since publication, coronavirus cases have surged across the country, leading to adjusted guidance from public health officials and canceled plans among some subjects in this story. “We’ve decided to cancel our small Thanksgiving given the current risk level, which is considerably higher than when we talked,” said Dave Moore, one of the people interviewed for the story. Moore cited the warning recently raised by UCSF’s Bob Wachter, who, when asked by the
New York Times about the risk posed by Thanksgiving, noted: “I’m massively worried. We couldn’t be more poorly positioned and the timing is just optimally terrible… If you wanted to design something to make things go worse, you would have designed Thanksgiving exactly when it’s coming.”

On November 26, software engineer Dave Moore and his family will be doing what some may consider taboo in 2020: holding a gathering in their home. “We’re hosting a very small Thanksgiving for just us and one other family — six people in total,” the San Francisco resident says of the small group and big decision. “We wanted to spend it in close quarters with our friends, making food together.”

From awkward family conversations to turkey-induced fatigue, Thanksgiving has always been one of the quirkier holidays. But because this is 2020, you can go ahead and increase that quirk factor exponentially. While some of us would typically be prepping Turkey Day menus and guest lists by now, most of us are still trying to make sense of the fact that it’s November. The reality is, we’re still in the throes of a global pandemic, and although a textbook holiday sounds heavenly, we’re just not there yet. But that doesn’t mean you have to entirely put the kibosh on the seasonal spirit — here are some practical tips to commemorate Thanksgiving safely, responsibly and with just as much stuffing as your heart desires.

Consider a virtual get-together

Yes, we’re all sick of Zoom calls, but experts say the safest way to celebrate is through a screen. “Hosting Thanksgiving in a virtual format is the safer option to minimize the spread of COVID,” says Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., family physician and West Regional medical director at One Medical. “There are several ways to get creative while having a physically distanced dinner: Have a contest on best decor or table settings, encourage theme costumes or incorporate games.” Consider this a second opportunity for Halloween glory — maybe throw it back to early quarantine with a Tiger King–themed T-Day?

Pick your “pod” or “bubble”

The phrase “pandemic pod” or “bubble” has been thrown around to describe a small group of people who self-contain their non-physically-distanced interactions (i.e., they agree to hang out only with each other). That’s exactly how Moore’s guest list came together, he says, noting that both his family and their guests “have very similar risk and exposure profiles — we don’t work with others, don’t take public transit, don’t have anyone else in the house, don’t eat at restaurants indoors or outdoors, rarely enter stores, and wear masks when outside the house. So we see the risk of such a merge as very low, and any infection would be easily contained.” Because neither Moore nor his wife cares for senior parents or other at-risk individuals, he says, “our risk is primarily to the four parents, all in our 50s.”

While California officials have said that no more than three households should gather this fall and that those gatherings should be outside and limited to two hours, there are no official safety guidelines on grouping. Many wonder if it’s really possible to form a pandemic-proof pod. “To most people it means that one family chooses to socialize exclusively with a small group of others outside the family who live separately, but presumably also practice COVID-19 safe practices,” says Dr. Dean Winslow, infectious disease specialist at Stanford Health Care. “Limiting social interactions to a small defined group would obviously be associated with less risk of COVID-19 infection than going to a crowded indoor bar or restaurant or attending an indoor party with lots of people.”

Bhuyan says it’s important to contemplate a few questions when picking pod members: “Are they people who are working from home? Do they avoid crowds or social functions? And when they go out, do they regularly wear a mask and are around others who wear a mask? Are liable social pod balances safety with socialization and is built on a foundation of trust and responsibility.” Because there’s no such thing as a “safe” number of pod members, Bhuyan says to err on the side of sparseness. “There is no ideal size of a pod or Thanksgiving event,” she says. “The reality is: the more people in the pod or event, the higher your risk of spreading COVID. I advise my patients to limit their pods to two to three families and aim for less than 10 people, including adults and children.”

Establish ground rules

If you’re going forward with an in-person event, be sure the members of your pod follow strict protocol. Leading up to the event (and frankly, always— we’re still in the midst of the pandemic), Bhuyan says attendees should continue to “stay at home when they can and avoid going out to social functions or crowds.” And if they do have to go out for errands or groceries, she notes, “they should wear a mask the entire time and ensure those around them are wearing a mask.” A two-week pre-event quarantine is also a good idea, especially if the event is going to include people who are older or in vulnerable populations. And if possible, a COVID test immediately prior to turkey day may offer extra peace of mind. “When we merge bubbles, we do it all the way,” Moore admits. “We share the house with no masks. If anyone has had increased risk in the two weeks leading up to it, we call it off. It’s all about risk versus reward. If we’re going to take the calculated small risk, we want a big reward. To us, that’s spending time together with no masks. After we do that, we don’t do it with different people for two weeks, to avoid any sort of outbreak.”

Set the scene

The one potential upside to these intense safety measures: no elbow bumping at the table. “If someone is coming in from outside the pod, they should maintain six feet of distance, and ideally, the meal should be outside,” says UCSF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics George Rutherford, M.D. “You might want to serve plates in the kitchen and bring them out individually to avoid contact when passing things.”

Thanksgiving alfresco sounds lovely except for the fact that, well, it’s November. “Consider investing in a couple of gas or electric-powered heaters like some restaurants have to keep you and your guests warm,” Winslow suggests.

You should also make sure every guest has access to the right kinds of party favors. “This includes plenty of hand sanitizer, as well as disinfecting wipes to frequently wipe down shared surfaces,” Bhuyan says.

While this isn’t the Thanksgiving any of us dreamed of, experts say sticking to proper safety protocols is the top priority this year — period. “The virus doesn’t know it’s Thanksgiving,” Rutherford says. “Don’t tempt fate.”

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