Cancel Thanksgiving: How to Safely Celebrate in a Pandemic

Eufemia Didonato

If you or your loved ones haven’t heard this directive, there’s a reason. In another administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue guidelines to Americans, in a coordinated effort with the president and coronavirus task force to be concrete in advising and coordinating with governors, mayors, and citizens. Instead, there is a messaging void. The president has abdicated his duties since the lead-up to the election. He has broken with his task force and refused to concede or allow transfer of power to incoming experts, leaving them without vital information. The CDC has a middling page of new “considerations” for holiday celebrations that the agency’s officials have neither publicly announced nor explained in news conferences.

Many local health departments, mayors, and governors have stepped up. In Baltimore and Chicago public-health directives have clearly advised people not to gather for the holiday. But our landscape is also dotted with local leaders who are unable or afraid to go nearly so far. Telling people not to gather for a holiday is, of course, an unpopular message.

So I’m doing it.

The truth is that we’ll likely need to be more careful with each passing day this winter, not less. The virus knows no difference between holidays and workdays. Our default should be to treat Thanksgiving as a day when the health guidelines are no different from any other day.

As the prevalence of the virus increases, things that were previously low risk become more dangerous. Hence the return of directives: Don’t gather indoors. Don’t travel. It’s never been advisable during the pandemic to socialize with people outside your bubble who can’t manage to wear masks and keep their distance, but it’s especially injudicious now. No family member should put pressure on others to gather. It’s likely that many people will join reluctantly because they don’t want to be the ones who are no fun, or to keep others in the family from acting indignant or insulted. Let those people be indignant. That’s on them.

Remember that this isn’t a personal or even a family-wide calculation. The risk of such gatherings is not limited to those who gather. Each transmission of the virus is like lighting a tree on fire in a forest. A small wedding in Maine in August, for example, is known to have led to the deaths of seven people who were not in attendance. We are all in this together.

That means everyone has to do their part. Just because a local official has not banned or warned against gathering with elders indoors does not make it safe. Some states, counties, and cities will warrant stricter restrictions than others. In disaster zones, like El Paso, Texas, where hospital ICUs are full and inmates are being drafted to staff makeshift morgues, it may be necessary to advise people not to leave home at all. (Officials in El Paso restricted business activity in late October, but a Texas court of appeals overturned the city’s stay-at-home order on Friday.) Hopefully few places get to that point. In warm areas with less spread, people could have outdoor gatherings of small groups, if everyone is vigilant about not getting too close. But that should be the extent of what celebrations happen anywhere.

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