Should You Cancel Thanksgiving? What Fauci and Other Experts Say About Celebrating During COVID

In a year where COVID-19 has killed almost 220,000 people in the U.S., many families will be looking to Thanksgiving as a chance to regain some normalcy. However, meeting up to celebrate could place people at risk.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House coronavirus task force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month that while people in some parts of the country could have a "relatively normal" Thanksgiving, others should consider only meeting with immediate family.

Fauci told CBS News his own celebration would "look very different this year," as his children would not be visiting because his age puts him at high risk of suffering severe COVID-19 symptoms if he contracts the virus.

Should my family skip Thanksgiving this year?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises the best way to avoid getting coronavirus is to stay at home. If travel is necessary, people should be "informed of the risks involved."

CDC lists low-, moderate-, and high-risk Thanksgiving activities.

Low risk would be having dinner with those in your household, virtual gatherings, and delivering family and neighbors food in a way that avoids contact. High risk activities include those that define the Thanksgiving holiday for many people, such as going to large parties and attending crowded events.

COVID-19 is currently spreading at an increasing rate in many parts of the country. New cases peaked in mid-July, at one point reaching over 60,000 per day. This dropped to a low of around 30,000 per day in September, but has since been rising again.

According to The New York Times' coronavirus tracker, there are currently only eight states or territories where the rate of new cases is low and staying low: Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, New York, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are 33 states where cases are high and staying high.

"We are expecting to continue to see increases in cases throughout the country," said Amira Roess, professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. "This is an important reason for reconsidering how we celebrate Thanksgiving."

Manisha Juthani, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine said deciding whether to celebrate with people outside your household "really depends on your family situation."

People are tired of the pandemic, Juthani said, so are willing to take their chances to be able to see relatives at a special time of year. Finding a solution that is as safe as possible is therefore reasonable, she said.

How can I prepare Thanksgiving in advance to keep my family safe?

Minimize the risk of catching the virus by following CDC advice such as wearing a mask in public settings, washing hands frequently, avoiding close contact with those who are sick, and socially distancing.

Getting groceries delivered is another way to minimize risk of catching the virus. If you are in charge of shopping for Thanksgiving and delivery is not an option, go to the store well ahead of the big day and avoid last minute runs. This reduces risk of infection among yourself, store workers and others in the community, said Roess.

Quarantine for two weeks

If possible, quarantine for 14 days before a gathering. It can take between two to 14 days for a person's COVID-19 symptoms to show, according to Amanda Mae Simanek, associate professor in epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Individuals can be infectious two days before their symptoms appear. They can typically end their isolation period after 10 days if their symptoms have improved and they have been free of a fever without needing medication, as they will likely no longer be infectious, she said.

"If you have not developed symptoms [in the 14 days], it is very unlikely that you have COVID-19," said Simanek.

Another option is traveling 14 days ahead of an event, and quarantining at the location. If you cannot quarantine at your event location, Simanek suggested staying at a hotel or rental.

"For many families, however, self-quarantine before or after traveling to their destination won't be possible for a range of reasons and thus, individuals will need to consider other ways to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission if they still decide to get together for the holiday," Simanek said.

Be clear about what you require from guests, especially if someone is at high risk of severe COVID-19

Andrew Brouwer, assistant research scientist in the department of epidemiology at the University of Michigan said communication is key.

"Check in with everyone who is going to be at the gathering and set clear expectations to avoid confusion and conflict," he said. "Should attendees be quarantining for two weeks ahead of time? Will everyone be wearing a mask? Will social distancing be observed? Family gatherings can be a high-stress time in normal years, and this year is anything but normal."

Following these steps is particularly important if a guest at the event is in a high risk group for developing severe COVID-19. This could include an underlying condition, such as obesity or diabetes, or because they are older. Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been people aged 65 and above.

Don't find a false sense of security in a negative test

Getting tested to ensure you do not have the virus can be useful in the lead up to Thanksgiving, but a negative test should not be seen as a pass to give up on following preventative measures, said Simanek.

People can test negative early on in their infection when the virus has not had a chance to replicate to a level that can be picked up by tests, she said. Those who have tested positive and have not ended their isolation period "should absolutely stay home from their celebration this year."

What is the smartest way to travel?

Many travel long distances to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, with the average long-distance trip being 214 miles according to the U.S Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But this increases the risk of catching and spreading the virus.

Driving is one of the lowest risk ways of traveling, Juthani said. Avoid crowded rest stops at the the busiest times of the day.

When traveling by rail or air, go at times when services generally have the fewest passengers, such as early in the morning.

Before traveling, it is advisable to check the latest guidance from the CDC and local health officials, particularly when it comes to ensuring your event does not exceed the recommended size of gatherings, said Brouwer.

thanksgiving dinner, stock, getty
A stock image shows a Thanksgiving celebration. Experts have warned against holding gatherings which resemble those before the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty

What should the celebration look like? Is it safe to gather indoors? Can we eat together?

In 2012, Pew published research showing 62 percent of people would be spending their Thanksgiving meal with 10 or more relatives; 27 percent said they would be eating with more than 20. Gatherings of this size are not advisable this year.

"We have to recognize that eating with individuals from outside of your household does significantly increase your risk of COVID-19," said Roess. "There have been numerous reports and analyses that have shown this."

It is therefore best to hold dinners outdoors, if the weather permits. If it is too cold or wet, it may be best to forgo some traditions like spending all day together, watching football and sharing snacks, said Simanek. "Instead, gather for a shorter meal or even just dessert and keep the group size smaller than normal," she said.

Although surfaces are not the primary mode of transmission for the virus, Simanek said it is probably best for each family to have their own food and serving utensils at their table and to otherwise minimize contact with other frequently touched surfaces.

If you are gathering for the day, it is also safest to keep masks on, says Juthani. At mealtimes, when you need to take off your mask, arrange the house so people from different households can be spread out, experts said. Also be sure to ventilate the home as much as possible.

What does this mean for Christmas and Hunnukah?

"COVID-19 cases will likely be high during December as well," said Juthani. "The same rules for all holiday gatherings apply."

Correction 10/23/20, 10:00 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to correct information on how long a person with the coronavirus is infectious.