The Thanksgiving holiday will be unlike any other year as Americans try to celebrate amid rising coronavirus infection rates in a pandemic that has cost more than a quarter of a million lives in the US.
Thinking about the safety of loved ones is uppermost in many people’s minds when organizing plans and some have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the day can still be enjoyed with friends and family.
But for others the risk of catching or spreading the virus is deemed too high and they will be spending a quiet day at home alone.
In Kirkland, Washington, retired high school art teacher Melissa Nelson is determined to hold a celebration – albeit very differently this year. Her 90-year-old parents would be “disappointed” if the family didn’t celebrate. “We have to deal with things, this [coronavirus] is just one of those things,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean we have to give up everything. We don’t give up everything. We still cook.”
For as long as Nelson, who is 65, can remember there’s been a large family gathering at Thanksgiving. When she was little, she would travel to her grandmother’s house in Kansas City but now she shares hosting duties with younger sister Megan.
Usually 25 people sit around a gigantic table bedecked with white damask tablecloths and silverware handed down through generations but this year is more of a challenge as everyone will be eating in their own homes.
So Nelson has drawn up a detailed plan of who’s cooking what and it’s down to her 33-year-old son Gordon (who’s also making the mashed potatoes) to deliver safely – and on time – between five households. When asked if Nelson expects the plan to run smoothly, she laughs. “No. Somebody, will be late, somebody will forget something, but that’s half the fun. There’ll be wine and champagne.
“I’m just thankful we’re still here, that we’ve got our set of masks and we’re still good.”
For many Americans, this Thanksgiving will mean self-isolating at home because they have been infected by coronavirus. Fifty-six-year-old Paula Buckner, who lives in Rockford, Illinois, is one of them.
As a patient sitter in a mental health unit at her local hospital, Buckner is philosophical about catching the disease. “I wear a mask at work, I wear it when I go out to the store. I don’t go out a whole lot. I go to the grocery when I need to,” she said.
“But it’s like any virus, it’s out there … I work in a hospital and people have their masks but life happens. It’s like any airborne virus, it’s out there, it happened to land on me and I’m going to stay home and not give it to other people.”
Her friends have been leaving groceries outside her door and on Thanksgiving she plans to snack on a turkey sandwich with some vegetables. She will watch football and try to catch a favorite movie – Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze is a guilty pleasure.
Buckner is thankful her case of coronavirus is mild and that she is unlikely to have spread the disease as she lives alone but worries about others during the holiday.
“In America you have the right to choose what you’re going to do. We recognize that right to choose but also recognize that you may inadvertently be hurting people.
“You’re spending your holiday with your family but is spending the holiday with your family more important to you than saving family members at Christmas or any other time?”
Just 90 kilometres away in south Chicago, 26-year-old university data analyst Peter Meyer Reimer is fearful about bringing the virus into his home during the holiday. Meyer Reimer lives in a 21-person co-op and so far, even amid soaring coronavirus cases in the city, they have all avoided the virus. This, he said, is down to very strict house rules.
Meyer Reimer grew up in northern Indiana and is used to large extended family gatherings of 25 or more. This year his family there are planning to leave prepared food in his grandma’s screened-in porch and each take a plate and join a Zoom call but he worries that even this careful approach may be too risky.
“I think a lot of people in the co-op will be around,” he said. “I think everyone has decided that it’s just not safe at all. Which is heartbreaking.”
Instead the co-op are planning to cook and share a meal. A smoked turkey has been put on order, though as it’s a mainly vegetarian household they will be experimenting with tofu- and seitan-based turkey alternatives.
Meyer Reimer expects to have a fun Thanksgiving with his housemates, but he’s concerned about when he will next see his family and is critical of local political leadership who only issued a stay-at-home advisory on Monday. “I can’t think more than a week ahead any more. It doesn’t work. It makes you too sad.
“I hope I can see my family at Christmas but if things continue as they are now, there’s just no world in which that’s possible.”
For retired Amtrak worker Clyde Coatney in Louisville, Kentucky, this year’s Thanksgiving will be a small affair. Usually he joins friends in Florida for the holiday but he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects his breathing, making him vulnerable to the virus and has been shielding at home with his 28-year-old daughter Shelby, since March.
Coatney, 59, has ordered a take-out Thanksgiving meal from two local restaurants who will deliver the food direct to the trunk of his vehicle.
Though there are only two of them eating, the traditional fare of turkey, sides and pie is packaged up for larger gatherings of at least six, which has left him undeterred. “We’ll eat it large for dinner and the next day we’ll just start working on the leftovers,” he said.
Father and daughter plan to spend the afternoon watching a bit of American football and holiday movies and Coatney feels himself to be “privileged and luckier than most”.
“My cheques have kept coming in [during the pandemic], there’s a lot of people have been disrupted, a lot of people in bad shape, before this ever happened,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to be thankful for in our household and we’ll be thinking about others as well.”