COVID-19 is surging more than ever and it has made Thanksgiving and the whole holiday season a perilous time. Experts across the nation and at UC Davis Health are issuing a clear warning: Visiting family and friends can put everyone in danger.

They safest way to visit family for Thanksgiving dinner is virtual
They safest way to visit family for Thanksgiving dinner is virtual

“COVID-19 doesn’t take holidays off,” said Natascha Tuznik, assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases and part of the UC Davis Health Travelers Clinic. “Actually, we’ve seen cases spike after every major holiday since the coronavirus pandemic began.”

The U.S. is seeing record numbers of daily infections, case numbers and hospitalizations in Sacramento and California are rising again, and despite hopeful news about a vaccine, it won’t come before the holidays.

The state Department of Public Health and Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Oregon and Washington state health officials in issuing a travel advisory urging people to stay home for the holidays. It also asks anyone who does travel into those states to self-quarantine for 14 days when they arrive.

“We all have to think hard about the risks,” Tuznik said. “We’ve seen too many cases of kids visiting grandma and grandpa and they end up getting COVID-19. Any one of us can get someone sick.”

In short, Tuznik’s first advice about gathering for Thanksgiving and the holidays is: Don’t. At least, not in person. Not even in small groups. Keep it to your household and online visits with everyone else.

“I know that’s not what people want to hear,” she said, “but we may be facing the worst of the coronavirus pandemic right now. The most important thing is to keep our family, friends and community safe.”

Small gatherings are driving the surge

Officials including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, and Gov. Newsom have said contact tracing suggests one of the main causes of this current, huge surge is small personal or family gatherings.

Tuznik cautioned that it’s easiest to let down our guard with good friends or family members who don’t live with us because we know them and trust them.

“But through no fault of theirs, they may have come in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive,” she said. “And if they have to travel to come to your house, there may be too many possible infection points to count.”

Looking and feeling fine are no measures of how infectious someone might be. The CDC says that up to 60 percent of COVID-19 transmission come from people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.

 “Think how bad you would feel if one of your vulnerable family members got sick because of you,” she said. “The best way to show you love someone is to keep them safe.”

Virtual celebrations

“If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us how to gather virtually. Now is the time to take advantage of what we’ve learned.”

— Natascha Tuznik

“If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us how to gather virtually,” Tuznik said. “Now is the time to take advantage of what we’ve learned.”

Suggestions for how to add some energy to a virtual Thanksgiving are everywhere. It starts with getting your Thanksgiving family and friends to simply eat dinner together virtually. Here are a few other suggestions:

  • Share a recipe beforehand, then all make the same dish.
  • Share your best fall cocktail or appetizer recipe when you gather.
  • If you live near your family and friends, prepare and deliver a dish before the meal, like a pie, and eat together.
  • For people in the same region, support a local restaurant and all order their Thanksgiving meal to go. If you’re in different places, each get takeout from a restaurant you’re thankful still exists.
  • Go around the virtual room telling what you’re thankful for.

If you must gather, keep it small

“There are a lot of reasons to keep any event small now, especially with cases skyrocketing,” Tuznik said. “The more people that gather together, the higher the probability that one person can infect a lot of other people.”

Keeping your group small also allows for easy social distancing and makes it easier to remember to distance.

“It’s just human nature to move closer to friends and family at a party,” Tuznik. “And if you’ve been hanging out a while, eating and drinking, you just forget to be careful. So, try to prevent any problems ahead of time.”

If you must gather, keep it outside

A small outdoor Thanksgiving meal will have decent air flow to help dilute the virus, and there is plenty of room for 6 feet or more of social distancing.

“In California, we’re lucky. If it doesn’t rain, we can put on a jacket and eat outside,” Tuznik said. “Indoors is much, much riskier.”

Even with windows open, there’s less air flowing inside, plus people are likely to get closer together. And research now shows that the virus can float in the air for hours. That means everyone who is indoors together is at risk, even if you do maintain a good social distance.

“Plus, you’ll be eating and drinking so you won’t be wearing your mask all the time,” Tuznik said. “I can’t say this strongly enough: An indoor Thanksgiving dinner is a huge risk if you include anyone from outside your household.”

Some other tips for a small outdoor gathering:

“The good news is there is no evidence the virus is transmitted through food. But it can easily be transmitted by gathering around food.”

— Natascha Tuznik

  • Set up tables at least 6 feet apart and set out a few “visitors chairs” 6 feet from each table so people can mingle.
  • Do away with communal appetizers like cheese plates or platters of snacks. Instead, put appetizers on each table
  • No Thanksgiving buffet this year. “The good news is there is no evidence the virus is transmitted through food,” Tuznik said. “But it can easily be transmitted by gathering around food.”

So, plate each person’s meal and let them come get it from a spot 6 feet from everyone, or even easier, put the helping for one household on a serving plate, then they can pick up their food and bring it back to their distanced table.

“Having any outside gathering now depends on the weather,” Tuznik said. “But if it’s too cold or wet to be outside, then postpone it and stay healthy for Thanksgiving and the holidays next year.”

Traveling home for the holidays may be the biggest risk of all

Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest travel times of the year, but Tuznik is hoping not this year. She strongly endorsed the official advisory not to travel, which is a recommendation, not a mandate, at least for now.

“Think how bad you would feel if one of your vulnerable family members got sick because of you. The best way to show you love someone is to keep them safe.”

— Natascha Tuznik

“Any other year, it’s such an important thing to go see the people we care about,” she said. “I completely understand the pull. But this year, you really have to evaluate the risk. Do you want to put your family, your friends, your community in more danger when the virus is spreading so fast?”

One of the big problems with families visiting on Thanksgiving and the holidays is the uncertainty about how careful others are with preventative measure like masking and distancing.

“If you are going to travel, make sure your whole group is on board with the same precautions,” Tuznik said. “If someone says, ‘I’m not going to mask,’ then don’t invite them or don’t visit them. Don’t let their selfishness put you and your whole family at risk.”

Next, and at least as risky, is the travel itself and all the people you’ll interact with. Anyone you come in contact with could be infectious – especially now that COVID-19 is spreading through communities everywhere.

If you must travel, here is some advice

“I would really worry about flying,” Tuznik said. “The planes can be risky, depending on the protocols of each airline and whether passengers resist wearing masks. But I’m most frightened by the airports themselves.”

Everything that can go wrong can happen in airports. They’re often crowded, even now. Some people won’t wear masks. It’s nearly impossible to social distance. People get pre-flight food and take off their masks in waiting areas to eat. You have no ability to make sure you’re safe.

“Crowd control at airports is extremely difficult,” she said. “Airports have no real way to protect you from all the other passengers. Then, after all that, you get on a plane and you don’t know if anyone has COVID-19, including the person next to you.”

One way to celebrate this unusual Thanksgiving is to support a restaurant by getting a takeout dinner.

Her advice: If you must travel do it by car. “That gives you a lot more control,” she said.

Some car trip tips:

  • Either bring your own food or get takeout and eat it in the car.
  • Keep your mask on if you use a public restroom. Washing your hands is important but also be aware of the potential for the coronavirus to be in the air. If it’s possible, either find a private restroom or a large one that isn’t busy.
  • If you have an overnight stop, try to reserve a rental rather than a motel or hotel room. And it won’t hurt to wipe down high touch surfaces.

“We’ve learned contact is not as risky as we first thought,” she said, “but it won’t hurt to wipe door handles, light switches and other places people touch a lot.”

If you want to be sure to protect the people you’ll visit, ideally, you’ll quarantine for 14 days before you go or when you get to your destination, as the state advisory recommends. Same thing for when you return.

“I just don’t think it’s worth it, no matter how much you miss your family and friends,” Tuznik said. “This one year, stay home, protect yourself, protect your loved ones, and give thanks you’ll be able to see them next year.”