Thanksgiving with family and friends is a bad idea, health experts warn

Masks next to Thanksgiving decorations.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Amid a massive surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the U.S., gathering for Thanksgiving is not safe this year, public health experts say. 

But if you must gather, there are ways to reduce the risk somewhat.

On Thursday (Nov. 13), the U.S. surpassed 150,000 new daily cases, a little over a week after the country first logged 6 digits in a single day, according to The COVID Tracking Project. More than 67,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest number of hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic. Both cases and hospitalizations are rising rapidly and exponentially, shattering records set in the spring.

"Most experts would agree that we're expecting to see a spike after Thanksgiving and that's a spike on top of already very discouraging and very scary numbers," said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "By far the safest choice that anybody can make this Thanksgiving holiday and likely stretching into the other winter holidays that are coming up is to host your celebration virtually."

In other words, celebrate in-person only with people in your own household and invite everyone else virtually, he said. This is in line with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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"If people are going to choose to still get together in person, there are some things you can do to lower your risk but nothing you can do to remove your risk completely," Gonsenhauser told Live Science. If you decide to get together in person, "the best choice" that's "still pretty low risk" is to drive up to people's houses and spend a bit of time in the driveway or front yard, while maintaining social distancing, keeping masks on and avoiding hugs and kisses, he said. 

Any other option puts you in "much higher risk propositions," Gonsenhauser said. The least of the higher-risk choices is if you can get together for Thanksgiving in an outside open-air environment and seat different households at different tables that are separated by 6 feet (1.8 meters) and that are not sharing food, utensils or plates of food, he added. Research has shown that the virus spreads easily indoors and in crowded gatherings. 

"The caution there is that as we're getting together to share this celebration and we're eating and drinking and having a good time, it's fairly carefree and people tend to let their guard down and that's when we start to see social distancing and other precautions break down," he said. "The minute those break down, we're again back at much higher risk situations."

If an outdoor environment is not possible, and you are set on gathering, then select a larger indoor space that can again accommodate multiple tables for different households, and try to put in place some adequate ventilation, such as open windows or have a box fan to blow exterior air into the room and another fan to move air out of the room (but not toward any guests), he said. Experts have also suggested using HEPA air purifiers in indoor settings, according to NPR.

Additionally, public health experts advise people to quarantine for 14 days before gathering for Thanksgiving to significantly reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 at the dinner table, according to CNN. Testing for COVID-19 may not be enough. Tests often "create a false sense of security," which will lead to a more casual approach to precautions, Gonsenhauser said. Testing doesn't remove your risk of spreading the virus because it's possible you were exposed to the virus and could have been tested too soon for it to show up, or you could have been exposed after taking the test, he said.

What's more, "you have to really try and understand what somebody means when they say that they're being really safe," Gonsenhauser said. "Most people are saying that right now, and it means different things to different people." The CDC recommends having conversations with guests beforehand to set safety expectations. 

The CDC also recommends limiting the number of people attending, though they don't specify numbers; The California Department of Health, for example, requires that no more than three households should get together in general. The CDC also recommends wearing masks whenever possible, staying at least 6 feet from people who are not part of your household, washing your hands frequently, avoiding having guests near where the food is being prepared and asking people to bring their own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils.

"Celebrating holidays alone or with your immediate household members can sound rather dreary," Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health wrote in a blog post. "But, if you look at it another way, the pandemic does offer opportunities to make this holiday a season to remember in new and different ways." 

Collins also recommended a virtual Thanksgiving and other ideas such as sending gifts to people, making videos to send around and taking a post-turkey dinner virtual group walk.

"Based on the current trajectory" and the spike that occurred in Canada after their Thanksgiving in early October, "we have every reason to believe that as we approach the December holidays, the situation is going to be even worse," Gonsenhauser said. Our "best chance" of having December holidays is to be "extremely strict with Thanksgiving."

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.