Is It Safe To Host Thanksgiving Dinner During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

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Whether your Thanksgiving traditions include gathering around the table with relatives from near and far or tucking into a multicourse meal at a nice restaurant, things will look different this year.

“This is not the year to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner,” said Pamina M. Gorbach, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We don’t want big family dinners to turn into superspreader events.”

COVID-19 is spread person-to-person through small particles or respiratory droplets that are produced when you cough, sneeze or even breathe. That means hugging your favorite aunt, having a raucous political debate over pumpkin pie or just breathing the same air as other dinner guests ― even if no one is showing symptoms ― could transmit the virus.

Although there is no evidence that the virus has been transmitted via food or its packaging, studies do show that the coronavirus can live on surfaces for up to three days. It can also linger up to three hours in the air, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

To decrease the chances of transmitting COVID-19, experts advise planning a low-risk Thanksgiving celebration.



Celebrate with everyone else virtually

You might be burned out on Zoom, but the safest way to celebrate by staying apart ― a virtual Thanksgiving is among the lowest-risk options, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If everyone takes turns and talks, it can be a great way to connect,” Gorbach said.

Cut down your guest list for an in-person feast

Enjoying turkey and all the fixings is safest if your table is only set for the members of your household.

A recent Butterball survey showed that 30% of people planned to host only their immediate family this year (up from 18% last year). CDC guidelines for Thanksgiving cite small dinners as the lowest risk celebration, while “attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household” is labeled the highest risk.

There is no “ideal” number of guests, but Gorbach warned that as the guest list increases, so do the odds of transmitting COVID-19. Enter the number of guests and your location into this interactive map to determine the risk that at least one person with the coronavirus will be at an event.

Stay close to home

Going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, especially if it involves air travel and hotel stays, increases the risk of COVID-19 exposure. The latest CDC data has linked several cases of the coronavirus to air travel. The Journal of the American Medical Association calls the risk of in-flight COVID-19 transmission “small,” but Gorbach noted that all of the other activities associated with travel — including hotel stays, stops at gas stations and restaurants and even time spent waiting in the terminal — increases your risk.

Driving to your destination is safer, said epidemiologist Tomás Nuño, assistant research professor at the University of Arizona. Remember to wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands regularly when you’re away from home.

Consider whether out-of-town guests should quarantine

Nuño said it’s important to understand the risks if you want to invite guests from outside your household. Check a COVID-19 dashboard for the states visitors are coming from and traveling to. The lower the transmission rate, the lower the risk. The “safest” visitors are those in communities with fewer than 5% positive testing rates, according to Nuño.

In an ideal world, guests would quarantine for two weeks before and after a family gathering, especially if they are traveling to or from areas with higher community spread, Nuño said. He recognizes that the prolonged period of isolation is not realistic for most, but stressed that quarantining is advised if your holiday plans include traveling to see family members in high-risk groups, including those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, asthma and Type 2 diabetes.

Rethink your tableware

Skip the fine china and go with disposables instead. Nuño recommended paper plates, napkins and single-use utensils for Thanksgiving dinner. The virus can survive for up to three days and plastic and stainless steel, one day on cardboard and several hours on copper, according a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology.

“[Using disposables] prevents multiple people from handling the dishes to bring them back to the kitchen, and wash them,” he said. “Anytime you can minimize how many people touch the same surfaces, it’s safer.”

Setting the table with disposables isn’t great for the environment, but Nuño said it’s the best choice to guard against the virus.

Ask guests to deposit their used dinnerware in the trash or recycle bin. Gorbach also suggested wearing gloves or using tongs to dispose of any items left behind: “You don’t want to pick up anything someone has had in their mouth or used to wipe their face.”

Face masks are going to be an important part of Thanksgiving this year. Hosts should consider having extra masks and hand sanitizer available for guests. 

Face masks are going to be an important part of Thanksgiving this year. Hosts should consider having extra masks and hand sanitizer available for guests. 

Assign a server

Although there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food, the virus could contaminate surfaces. Ask one person to serve the food to limit the number of people touching the dishes.

You should also skip the buffet. Nuño noted that the more people crowded around a table full of food, the higher the concentration of potentially infectious respiratory droplets.

Host an outdoor gathering

The odds of transmitting COVID-19 are almost 19% higher in indoor settings than outdoors. If the weather temperatures are mild, move Thanksgiving dinner outdoors.

Even outdoors, it’s still important to maintain social distancing and wear a mask, Nuño said. It’s a misconception that COVID-19 isn’t spread outdoors. In fact, the perfect weather for an outdoor gathering ― warm to cool air temperatures, low wind speed and weak turbulence ― can actually allow the virus to be airborne longer; coronavirus aerosol particles can spread more than one mile in low wind conditions, which means other outdoor Thanksgiving celebrations could make you sick.

Light the fire pit, encourage guests to bring a blanket and serve mulled cider to create a feeling of coziness on a chilly evening, but make sure to maintain social distancing and keep your mask on.

Practice social distancing, always

Skip the hugs and handshakes and encourage social distancing. Gorbach suggested placing chairs at least 6 feet apart — preferably outside — or setting up separate tables where members of the same household sit together.

“Don’t have everyone clustered together around one big table,” she said. “You want to avoid people crowding in mixed groups as much as possible.”

Encourage masks

If your Thanksgiving dinner includes guests from outside your household, everyone should wear a mask when they’re not seated at their table, Gorbach said. Data comparing COVID-19 transmission before and after mask mandates took effect shows that mandatory face coverings slowed the daily growth rate; separate research found that coronavirus deaths were lower in countries where government policies favored wearing masks. Hang a sign at the door with the “house rules” and keep a basket with spare masks and hand sanitizer available for guests who forgot their own supplies.

“This year, Thanksgiving should be different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate and still have our family get-togethers,” Nuño said. “We just need to do it in different ways.”

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