There’s something so nice (and relatively stress-free) about a Thanksgiving meal where everyone helps out by bringing a dish to share. But as we all know too well, nothing is really "stress-free" this year, and if your annual tradition involves everyone doing a portion of the cooking, you may be wondering: Is a potluck safe this Thanksgiving?
“This year is COVID Thanksgiving. We're going to have to make some adjustments and let's just reconcile ourselves to that, and think about the fact that the one invitee we don't want at the party is the virus,” William Schaffner, M.D, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Disease at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine tells Romper via phone. “We hope that this is a transition year. Last year we had a traditional Thanksgiving. We hope to have a near normal Thanksgiving [in 2021],” he adds.
All three experts who spoke to Romper for this article stressed that the risk is less about the way the Thanksgiving meal is served, (potluck, buffet, individual portions) and more about the simple act of people gathering in close quarters without masks (because you can’t wear a mask while you eat).
“When friends and family come together for holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving, it can be difficult to socially distance effectively. Shared indoor spaces and multiple small children unable to stay six feet away from others can be a recipe for potential virus spread. Potlucks, in general, aren’t a good idea this Thanksgiving," pediatrician Dr. Whitney Casares tells Romper via email. Dr. Schaffner echoes this sentiment saying, “Food has nothing, per se, to do with COVID virus, transmission. That's not the issue. The issue is the people getting together for prolonged periods of time.”
In their Thanksgiving guidelines, The Centers For Disease Control said that “attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household,” is one of the higher risk things you can do. While there is no evidence that the virus spreads via food, the CDC also specifically recommends that, “if food is offered at any... event, have individual, pre-packaged boxes or bags instead of a potluck, buffet, or family-style meal.”
This is not what any of us want to hear, but it’s the unfortunate reality of the situation. But it doesn't mean you have to eschew all tradition and totally cancel your annual Thanksgiving. Instead, “what we're trying to do is reduce the risk and think of a series of little ways that we can adjust to COVID if we're going in any event to get a group of people together,” Dr. Schaffner tells Romper. Maybe that means having a distanced, outdoor celebration this year (don’t forget the outdoor heaters to keep everyone cozy). You could make hand sanitizer and masks available in case individuals forget or you could consider having individualized food portions as opposed to buffet style, as suggested via email by Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, MD, Infectious Disease Physician and Associate Hospital Epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
A more virtual Thanksgiving may be the best option. “There used to be 20 around the table. Well, maybe we'll just do eight this year and FaceTime some of the more distant relatives. There are ways one can adjust,” Dr. Schaffner says.
But frankly, if your old plans used to include many people from different households gathering indoors, it’s very risky to not amend your plans at all. When asked if there is a "safe" way to do an in-person gathering this year, Dr. Schaffner tells me that he doesn't like to use that word because it implies completely safety, and nothing aside from staying home with your bubble is completely without risk. He says that even if every attendee has been tested, there's still some risk. "Testing is useful, but like everything else, it has its limitations and imperfections. It's not an absolute because it only tells you something on that day [and] the rapid test, which is now becoming more widely available, has a lot of false negatives. So you have to do a whole series of [precautions] together."
If you or someone you know has their heart set on having a Thanksgiving potluck, there are a few ways to lower the risk (though risk is always present). Make expectations clear to guests beforehand: you can let them know that you'll be sitting spaced out (ideally outside), there will be no hugging, and everyone should wear masks when they're not eating. You may go so far as to ask them to bring their own serving utensils only to be shared with their family. "Make sure people are aware that they should not come if they feel sick, even with mild symptoms," Dr. Andujar Vazquez says.
As for explaining the plan to your children? Dr. Schaffner suggests using positive language to explain to your kids what they can expect beforehand so they aren't confused or disappointed; he uses the example explaining that they can't hug their grandparents this Thanksgiving (or can, but just once around the waist) because the family loves and cares about each other and everyone is doing their part to protect one another.
"The last thing any of us want is for Thanksgiving — a holiday, a celebration, a time to give thanks — to become accelerator events, so-called 'super spreader events'. And so approaching Thanksgiving in a thoughtful way, recognizing that we have to make some adjustments in the hopes that next year will be better, I think is a more positive way to approach it rather than being, as I like to say, stubbornly grumpy," Dr. Schaffner says.
And that probably means skipping the Thanksgiving potluck this year, with the hope that doing our part in 2020 means a brighter holiday season next year.
Whitney Casares, M.D., M.P.H., pediatrician, author of The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One, and founder of www.modernmommydoc.com
Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, M.D., Infectious Disease Physician and Associate Hospital Epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center
William Schaffner, M.D, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Disease at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine