Enjoy Thanksgiving… but be cautious

For many of us, this Friday is the last day of work before Thanksgiving break. In normal years, when our work is over and the kids are finished with school, we would hit the ground running at quitting time to pack our bags and head to a family reunion. As in many other respects, 2020 is likely to be different for many of us.

Thanksgiving 2020 comes amid a rising number of Coronavirus cases and warnings from public health officials. Many governors are implementing new restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. In response, angry social media users are decrying the warnings by accusing medical experts of being Thanksgiving grinches and alleging, as Charlie Kirk did, that “the left has always hated Thanksgiving.”

As with many things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There really is a deadly virus that is running wild through America (and the rest of the world). It is also true that some governors are guilty of overreach when it comes to trying to contain the virus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California gets a lot of heat for his Thanksgiving guidelines which include a curfew for nonessential businesses in many of the state’s counties. In areas of widespread risk of viral spread, residents are subjected to a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. that closes nonessential businesses and gatherings. After 10 p.m., restaurants can only serve takeout food.

Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told Cal Matters that the curfew is not an appropriate response, saying, “Curfews in and of themselves aren’t going to make all the difference. Wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding getting together with people outside their own households — those are the key things that will make a difference. It’s a layered approach.”

In other words, the danger in California and elsewhere is real, but Newsom’s curfew is also not a response based on scientific recommendations. As such, Newsom’s guidelines may do more harm than good.

“They seem like the worst sort of compromise,” Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health, pointed out. “They’re not supported by evidence or public health professionals, so they undermine any claim of following the science, and they give cover for leaders who want to be seen as ‘doing something’ even though they likely won’t be effective.”

The bottom line here is that there is a real public health crisis going on. The Coronavirus did not disappear after the election. This week, the US death toll exceeded 250,000 people. That’s 10 times the number of people killed in auto accidents each year and second only the number of deaths from heart disease and cancer. The last milestone of 200,000 dead was reached on September 13, only two months ago.

Americans are understandably suffering from COVID fatigue after eight months of pandemic. The problem is that, as Ben Shapiro is fond of saying, facts don’t care about your feelings. And Coronavirus is a fact, both in terms of its deadliness and its ability to spread through close contact.

So, what should you do about Thanksgiving? That’s going to depend a lot on your particular situation. If you live near the people you plan to spend Thanksgiving with and see them on a regular basis already, then you have little to lose by having Thanksgiving dinner with them. On the other hand, if you live across the country and need to fly the airlines or take a long car trip for your turkey dinner, then you should consider changing your plans.

No matter what you decide to do, you should exercise caution and follow the basic guidelines of handwashing, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and wearing a mask when social distancing is not possible. The CDC has published recommendations for safely celebrating Thanksgiving that include staying outside or opening windows where possible, frequently disinfecting surfaces, and having a virtual gathering, particularly for attendees who are high-risk.

In my case, we usually have a meal with my in-laws, who live several hours away. Due to the long drive, we usually spend several days with them as well as visiting my parents, who live in the same town. There are several problems with the tradition this year. We could drive safely, but we would be in prolonged contact with both sets of parents, all of whom have elevated risk factors for COVID-19.

As a result, we spoke with my mother-in-law last night and decided to forego the Thanksgiving dinner this year. A big factor in the decision was my sister-in-law, whose family does not practice social distancing or masking. Even though they live next door, my in-laws have isolated themselves from my sister-in-law’s family to protect their own health. If we had Thanksgiving dinner with them, the virus could spread through all three families. If we then visited my parents, it could spread to them as well.

The caution is not only about my sister-in-law’s family. My primary job is as a pilot, which requires travel, and my family hasn’t been isolated, although we have been cautious. We have been attending church in person, occasionally eating out, and been in contact with friends. Given the behavior of Coronavirus, someone in my family could be infected and not know it.

Our decision to skip Thanksgiving was not a result of “living in fear.” My family has been living life all along. We have been attending in-person church services, shopping, and visiting restaurants since Georgia reopened in May. We even went on a Florida vacation last summer.

The decision was about being cautious and protecting others, however. When we go out, we wear masks, sanitize our hands, and try to maintain distance from others. It was also about not undermining the safety measures taken by our parents, who have, out of necessity, been more isolated over the past few months.

COVID-19 is real. I know many people who have had the disease. Several of these people have had serious and prolonged cases. (My friend, Ed Willing, wrote about his experience with COVID here.) I knew two people who have died from Coronavirus.

In order to protect my family, we reached the decision that it is better to skip this year and resume our Thanksgiving traditions next year after vaccines are available and the disease has run its course. To us, a turkey dinner is not worth risking the lives of our elderly loved ones.

Some people might accuse us of being cowardly or of being insufficiently faithful, but the truth is that I would feel guilty for the rest of my life if my actions resulted in the death of my parents or in-laws (or anyone else for that matter). After the pandemic is over, the chances are excellent that we will get together next Thanksgiving. Once we feel it is safe, we won’t even wait that long.

But many people who celebrate Thanksgiving as usual won’t have that option because they will contract COVID during the holiday and die before next year’s holiday. Given that COVID typically takes about three weeks to kill, many people who are infected over the Thanksgiving holiday won’t live to celebrate Christmas.

Follow David Thornton on Twitter (@captainkudzu) and Facebook

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