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From virtual gatherings to small Thanksgiving dinners with the people you live with, there are a number of ways you can celebrate the holiday safely during COVID-19. skynesher/Getty Images
  • Despite the pandemic, there are ways to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines for a safe Thanksgiving.
  • You should avoid travel and large dinner gatherings, according to the CDC.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Turkey, mashed potatoes, family, and football all bring about the nostalgia of Thanksgiving for many people. However, with the pandemic underway and COVID-19 cases increasing in many areas, it’s difficult to imagine this year’s celebration like those of the past.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert, recently told Yahoo News, “I think we need to realize things might be different this year, particularly if you want to have people who are going to be flying in from a place that has a lot of infection — you’re going to an airport that might be crowded, you’re on a plane, and then to come in — unless you absolutely know you’re not infected — there are many people who are not going to want to take that risk.”

Fauci added that his family is making adjustments, too. His three daughters who live in different states won’t be visiting him this Thanksgiving.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states in its guidelines for Thanksgiving that travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. However, if you must travel, consider the risks involved first.

“Family gatherings this year may put our loved ones at risk, especially the most vulnerable, such as grandparents. Better to miss one in-person holiday, so all can celebrate together next year,” Dr. Mark Jarrett, chief quality officer for Northwell Health in New York, told Healthline.

In addition to traveling, the CDC also suggests avoiding the following activities to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus:

  • attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household
  • participating or being a spectator at a crowded race
  • attending crowded parades
  • shopping in crowded stores around Thanksgiving
  • using alcohol or drugs, which can cloud judgment

There’s good news, though. There are ways to celebrate Thanksgiving without putting yourself or others at risk.

Health experts share a few ideas and their level of risk, according to the CDC.

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Finding an alternative way to celebrate the holiday in a manner that you feel is safe and responsible is important for your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Geber86/Getty Images

Since eating a grand meal together is the essence of Thanksgiving celebrations, finding an avenue to enjoy food together is one way to keep the vibe of the day alive. Safer alternatives include:

Dine virtually (low risk)

A virtual dinner party is the safest and best option to connect with those who can’t travel to see you. Organize a start time to eat over Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime.

You can initiate the same traditions virtually as you would in person, such as asking everyone what they’re grateful for or to share a favorite memory of the year so far.

“Virtual gatherings are an alternative way of assessing how well a friend or relative is. Nonverbal information is important. We can see if someone has lost a lot of weight or appears nervous or unhappy,” Krystine Batcho, PhD, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, told Healthline.

Eat with your housemates (low risk)

If your gathering is smaller than usual, you can still go all out with those you live with. Make all your traditional dishes and then some. Sharing them with those you are closest to can be comforting during such an intense time.

The CDC suggests preparing traditional family recipes for family members or neighbors who don’t live with you, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. You can deliver them in a way that doesn’t involve contact, such as dropping a pie at their door.

“It isn’t just fun to interact with other people, it is essential to well-being to maintain healthy social connections. During the period of social isolation imposed by the pandemic, indicators of anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness have increased,” says Batcho.

By prioritizing relationships, she says holidays strengthen prosocial emotions and behaviors, including compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and altruism.

“The pandemic has reminded us that we all need one another, and we’re all in this together,” she adds.

Host a small outdoor dinner (moderate risk)

If sticking to dining with people in your household isn’t going to cut it, the CDC suggests hosting an outdoor meal with a small group of family and friends who live in your community.

If you have family or friends who are traveling a distance to join you, Jarrett says to remind them not to let their guard down.

“Keep gatherings to… no one with symptoms. Extra precautions can include 10 to 14 days of quarantine [from] visitors before the event. Wear masks, distance, wash hands,” he said.

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Trying new experiences can help bring meaning to the season and create new traditions to enjoy. Juanmonino/Getty Images

To get in the Thanksgiving spirit, research pumpkin patches or orchards where people are expected to wear masks, maintain physical distancing, and use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins or picking apples.

Taking in the experience and enjoying that it’s possible during the pandemic may make the adventure all the more worth it. Finding a spot on the farm or orchard to sit and reflect with those you are with can bring meaning to the season.

“This year, when gatherings might not be possible or advisable, we can still enjoy the benefits of holidays like Thanksgiving. We can take time to reflect on the value of gratitude and the meaning of our lives,” says Batcho.

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Bingeing a new show or catching up with an old favorite can be an enjoyable form of self-care if you’re isolated from others during the holiday. MATTIA/Stocksy

Getting good TV time is a must for many on Thanksgiving. While it might not be possible to watch football, events, parades, or “A Christmas Story” with a bunch of your favorite people snuggled on the couch as the smell of turkey fills the room, you can still do this with those you live with.

Batcho suggests sharing TV traditions with those from afar in unique ways.

“Feelings of belonging counteract loneliness and provide the advantages of social support. Even from a distance, people can enjoy the sense of community. For example, friends and relatives can watch a favorite film at the same time and exchange comments in real time,” she said.

If you decide to venture out to a small outdoor sports events with safety precautions in place, the CDC considers this a moderate risk and suggests following these guidelines.

Since shopping is such a big part of Thanksgiving and the day after, if you feel like you’ll miss out, shop online with those you live with. You can all browse together while eating seconds from Thanksgiving dinner.

Part of living during this time means dealing with constant change, which is a double-edged sword, says Batcho.

“We love the excitement that prevents us from becoming bored, and we appreciate the benefits advances in science have given us in medicine, health, safety, entertainment, and convenience. But change is inherently stressful as we need to adapt, learn new skills and ways of doing things, and give up some of our old ways of living,” she said.

Because unexpected or substantial change threatens a sense of being in control, anxiety that stems from the uncertainty of the future is heightened when you no longer feel that you can predict what might come next and whether you’ll be able to cope with it.

This is where dependable markers in time, such as holidays, alleviate the sense that things might be changing more rapidly than you can or want to keep up with, added Batcho.

“Because holidays are predictable, they offer the opportunity to hit ‘pause,’ and give a bit of stress relief. Grounded in tradition, holidays connect us to the past and ensure the comforting feeling of continuity across time and change,” she said.

As uncertainty continues to flourish during the pandemic, there is a greater need to strengthen and renew relationships.

“Holidays serve as society’s agreed upon opportunities to attend to our need to stay socially connected. Get-togethers with family, friends, and co-workers remind us of our importance to others and preserve our sense of meaning and purpose in our lives,” Batcho said.