There will be four people at my Thanksgiving table: my husband, my two children and me. They’re the same people I sit down to dinner with every night. And I’d like to give you a virtual high-five if your Thanksgiving meal will look the same.
When the lockdown started in March, wise people immediately piped up to say that it was important to check on each other emotionally, that long periods of isolation would be hard on everyone. That seemed like good advice, but I had no idea what a long slog it would be. In mid-March, when talk turned to preparing for virtual seders, I was surprised; were we sure, really, that social distancing would be necessary for that long? By the time virtual High Holidays rolled around, after pandemic month had unfolded after pandemic month, it all seemed like a grim, unfunny joke.
In eight months of pandemic, we’ve learned a lot. We know now that we don’t need to disinfect our groceries, that briefly passing by someone on the sidewalk is probably not going to get us sick, that (with basic precautions) we can relax when we’re outside and enjoy the outdoors. Summer was a welcome reprieve for my family after months of being shut in; we went to the beach and swam in lakes, we gathered with friends and extended family members for picnics.
But as much as we’ve learned where we can feel safe, we’ve also learned a lot about where we need to heighten our guard.
The bad news about high-risk Covid activities is they’re things that naturally feel very safe to humans. Inviting a class friend or family member who is not a part of your household over for an indoor meal is high-risk; so is having a grandparent babysit for a few hours. We know that outdoor events are safer than indoor events; what’s less intuitive is that larger, public gatherings with clear guidelines (such as protests where everyone is masked or even in-person school with safety protocols in place) are safer than smaller, informal gatherings where lines easily get blurred and people don’t necessarily mask or social distance. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has identified small indoor gatherings as the primary driver of the state’s alarming spike in Covid cases.
It makes me uneasy when I hear people make justifications for bending these rules. I understand; living this way is grueling, and I’ve bent some rules myself. But, anecdotally, I know of many who now freely visit members of their extended family, even as those family members visit and gather with others in different social orbits. I hear of “pandemic pods” where the definition of a pod seems to become looser and looser, including multiple households and exponentially increasing the number of social contacts and risk for disease transmission. I know of people who rely on quick Covid tests to justify their plans, not factoring in the five to seven days it would take for the virus to reach detectable levels in their bodies after transmission.
I’m sure there are ways to plan a safe visit with family members. And I think part of the problem is that public health officials spend so much time telling us what we shouldn’t do that they don’t tell us what we should. I would welcome a public health-informed guide to planning an indoor family gathering; for instance, maybe it would be safe if two households each quarantine for a week, then get negative Covid tests and travel by car only a certain distance to reach each other. I don’t know; I’m not a doctor. But given the fact that these visits are happening with or without the blessing of public health officials, it would be useful to have specific procedures focused on harm reduction.
That said, Thanksgiving is not the time for these experiments.
Two weeks after Canadian Thanksgiving on Oct. 12, that country experienced a spike in infections. This year’s holiday is going to be a very dangerous one, just at a time when there is a surge of infections nationwide. The best way to reduce the public harm is to keep your indoor celebration within your household.
Though I won’t be eating with my mom, she has promised to bring me a pie on Thanksgiving Day. And pie exchanges are an observance that I can unreservedly recommend for this year. Share your meal through foil-covered dishes you leave on your neighbors’ doorsteps. Just don’t go inside.