How to travel, eat and celebrate Thanksgiving safely this year, according to the CDC

Elise Solé
·6 min read

Families are undoubtedly cautious about celebrating Thanksgiving this year as the country’s coronavirus pandemic hits scary new heights. But updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer clarity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on holiday celebrations and small gatherings. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on holiday celebrations and small gatherings. (Photo: Getty Images)

This week, the U.S. surpassed 10 million cases of COVID-19, more than 240,000 of which have proved fatal, according to the Associated Press. The CDC has pointed to small household gatherings, such as on Thanksgiving, as an “increasing threat” to public health, and has doubled down on holiday warnings. On Monday, the organization updated its holiday celebrations and small gatherings guidelines (the original version was published in September), with its most recent version outlining tips for overnight guests and for safe eating and travel.

“We have to be realistic — the advice isn’t ‘don’t celebrate’ because people likely wouldn’t follow that,” Brian Labus, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Yahoo Life. “But if you engage in a higher-risk activity, do it in a safer way. We try to reduce risk, because we can’t remove it.”

Hands down, virtual celebrations are the safest way to celebrate, the CDC said in October, with in-person gatherings that combine other households — including returning college students — the least safe. (According to the Washington Post, schools have required students to get COVID-19 tests before leaving for Thanksgiving break, planned post-holiday remote classes through the spring semester or encouraged students to remain on campus to avoid spreading the virus in their hometowns.)

The CDC’s latest guidelines include risk factors for getting and spreading COVID-19, such as the community levels of the disease at both the destination and from where people travel (high levels increase risk of infection and spread), exposure through travel and the nature of the gathering: Is the venue big or small? How many guests? And how long will dinner last?

And the lifestyle habits of party guests matter. As the agency notes, “Individuals who did not consistently adhere to social distancing (staying at least 6 feet apart), mask wearing, handwashing and other prevention behaviors pose more risk than those who consistently practiced these safety measures.” Those habits should also be implemented during gatherings, says the CDC, but drinking alcohol or using drugs distorts people’s ability to practice them.

The CDC doesn’t say to cap the invite list, but strongly urges excluding the following folks: those diagnosed with or experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms or awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, and anyone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 within the previous 14 days (symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days post-exposure) or who is at increased risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 (people over 65 or who have certain medical conditions). Dr. Anthony Fauci, 79, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, took this last piece of advice, telling CBS News that, given his age, his three children won’t celebrate at home this year.

And don’t hesitate to ask your host who else is coming to dinner. “You probably won’t get detailed information, but if you’re comfortable with the risk of infection, you should feel comfortable asking questions,” says Labus. “If people that don’t wear masks are coming, you may have second thoughts.”

So if you’re trekking to Thanksgiving dinner, know that all modes of travel present some risk — there’s no scientific consensus regarding COVID-19 transmission on airplanes, though in-flight air filtration systems could reduce exposure. If you fly, read the airline’s policies. Although some carriers don’t sell middle seats to ensure space between passengers, rules vary and are subject to change.

Trains and buses aren’t ideal for social distancing, but in August, when the New York Times surveyed transportation agencies, it found no link between subways, buses and trains and “notable” superspreader events. And ride sharers could order private (not pooled) rides, though quarters are close, so the CDC has suggested sitting in the back seat that’s diagonally across from the driver.

During a gathering, it’s a good idea to keep the air in a home flowing. Aside from respiratory and contact transmission, COVID-19 can spread through “airborne transmission,” expelled droplets through talking or singing that suspend in the air. It’s uncommon, but airborne transmission has also “appeared to have occurred” in poorly ventilated spaces “that allowed a build-up of suspended small respiratory droplets and particles.”

If you can’t eat outside, “the best thing you can do is open windows in your home,” Dak Kopec, an associate professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Yahoo Life. Unlike office buildings with sophisticated systems that push and pull air in and out, he says, residential spaces rely on “passive ventilation,” like open windows or structural cracks and crevices.

At dinner, designate one masked person to serve guests instead of using communal serving spoons and tongs, says Labus. Research from the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — can live for up to three days on stainless steel and plastic. The CDC lists “fomite transmission” (infection through touching a contaminated surface) as one form of contact spreading, although it notes it is not as common.

And what about those unavoidable bathroom trips — made especially urgent by second (and third) helpings? Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University, told the Los Angeles Times that a hasty solo restroom trip won’t necessarily place hosts or guests in danger, provided your hands are thoroughly washed and appliances and surfaces are wiped with a household cleaner.

Whether you’re a guest or host, any overnight stay should be determined based on the aforementioned risk factors. Backup plans for care and travel are important if anyone gets sick, says the CDC. While inside a home, guests and hosts should wear masks and keep distant from one another, with luggage stored separately from communal areas of the home.

What if someone is exposed to COVID-19 during a gathering? The CDC says that person should isolate from everyone else in the home, quarantine for 14 days starting from the point of exposure and get tested for the virus.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.