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Health officials are advising people to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say there are still ways to carry on family traditions. martinedoucet/Getty Images
  • Many families are dealing with balancing Thanksgiving traditions and COVID-19 safety precautions.
  • Health experts are urging people to avoid traveling this holiday season as COVID-19 cases continue to increase.
  • Experts say parents can explain to children why they need to be especially cautious this year.
  • They recommend doing family traditions such as recipe sharing and giving the Thanksgiving dinner blessing via video conference.

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Jacob Roth will see his 101st Thanksgiving this year, but it won’t be with the usual dozen or so family members.

“Can’t do anything we usually do this year,” Roth, who was born in early 1920 during the waning months of the 1918 flu pandemic and now lives at Atria Cranford, a senior living community in New Jersey, told Healthline. “I normally go to my nephew’s, but this year I can’t, as I want to stay safe.”

Roth will likely be in the majority of Americans in 2020 who will skip at least part of their traditional celebrations as COVID-19 cases continue to increase at a record pace.

Nonetheless, 1 in 3 parents surveyed in a new poll say they’ll continue family gatherings despite warnings from health officials to stay home.

The poll was conducted nationally and based on responses from 1,443 parents of at least one child 12 or under.

“Many families are struggling with whether, and how, to continue their holiday traditions while balancing risks and benefits,” said Sarah Clark, co-director of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine, in a statement.

Health officials are telling people not to travel and to limit contact through the holidays, especially with grandparents and others in high-risk groups.

“COVID-19 has taken a lot of things away from people, including their jobs, their health, or even their lives,” Dr. Georgia Gaveras, chief psychiatrist and co-founder of New York-based mental health provider Talkiatry, told Healthline. “Emotions are raw, and people are in need of opportunities to heal emotionally.”

“So this Thanksgiving, try to remember what’s really important, to put things in perspective, and resist the temptation to argue,” Gaveras said. “If you can’t be together in person with extended family this year, plan a phone or video call in advance, to share recipes or cook together, as well as a call during the meal itself.”

The poll indicated that even people planning to gather are also planning to take precautions.

Two-thirds of respondents said they won’t invite family members who haven’t been using safety precautions, such as mask wearing, and 88 percent said they will ask family members who have had symptoms of exposure to the virus not to come over.

But that still leaves 12 percent who will.

Dr. Jose Mayorga, the medical director of the UCI Health Family Health Center in Santa Ana, California, told Healthline, “The danger is significant.”

“The coronavirus family, which includes COVID-19, thrives this time of year,” Mayorga told Healthline. “It is predominantly due to the change in weather patterns and forcing individuals indoors. That’s why health experts stress that we should limit or avoid indoor gatherings with individuals outside our household.”

Dr. Veronica Contreras of AltaMed Health Services in Commerce, California, told Healthline that people will unknowingly spread the virus during what’s already a typically bad time of year for healthcare workers.

“The last thing we want to do is infect our grandparent or parent,” Contreras said. “There are many people who are asymptomatic and unknowingly spreading COVID-19. With the increase in number of gatherings, the cases will continue to increase, more beds will be taken up, and not only will there be a shortage of beds, but also a shortage of staff.”

“Heart attacks, strokes, or car accidents won’t stop occurring, and they may not be taken care of as quickly if hospitals are full,” she added.

The study suggests using video calls to link children with relatives to reinforce traditions.

That could include making favorite family dishes or giving a collective blessing before dinner.

Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychology at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, told Healthline that adults must “set safe, reasonable limits” when it comes to explaining to children what families need to do this year.

“Children can be disappointed, just as the parent will be, but it’s not a good reason to take a risk,” Saltz said. “Explaining to children that this year it’s more important to be safe as a family, to keep grandparents safe, to be a good citizen by following public health guidelines, and not adding to the spread of COVID-19. These are good lessons for children.”

“You can say you’re bummed too, and you can also say it’s a good time to pitch in and get creative about what can make the day safe but festive,” said Saltz. “You can talk about what you can do to connect even from afar with loved ones you can’t be with, and it’s a good time to discuss using your words to express your love and kindness to those you’ll be missing via a card, a note, a phone call, etc.”

Dr. Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California, told Healthline that parents need to set healthy boundaries and identify their own comfort levels surrounding the holidays.

“It may be helpful to process these thoughts with a therapist or loved one or journal to gain a sense of clarity,” Magavi said. “Individuals then could use succinct, clear phrases to address and clarify their comfort level and needs.

“They could practice by respectfully asking loved ones to wear their masks, stand further away from them and each other, or wash their hands,” she said.

“During this pandemic, it’s especially OK to ask for clarity, to respectfully correct someone, or to express discomfort with someone’s behavior,” Magavi added. “Some individuals need to be reminded to wear their masks or to practice social distancing.”