In ordinary times, Thanksgiving safety advice starts with the proper way to thaw the turkey. You don't want it to become a salmonella spreader.
These are not ordinary times. Safety now has to do with keeping the holiday get-together from becoming a Covid superspreader.
Many of us have been following solid public health advice from the CDC and NIH's Tony Fauci: We limit our socializing to outdoor spaces where we can rely on breezes to refresh the air around our socially-distanted selves. We wear our masks and keep social, non-family groups to four people--oh, maybe with an occasional one or two more trusted friends or family who have been following the coronavirus rules as well.
That's what's helped get us out of the house and through the past three or four months without any devastating illness. We're also fortunate that the area in which we live has a low infection rate. That makes us feel safer about running into a Starbucks to pick up a coffee or a Panera for a sandwich to eat in a park. But does that mean we should feel safe about our traditional Thanksgiving get-together with friends and family?
The CDC doesn't think so. Its director, Dr. Robert Redfield told an October 13 conference call of governors that the current threat "is actually acquisition of infection through small household gatherings." Then he added his worry about the future: "Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it's really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting."
Outdoor dinners would be a safe work-around. But for those of us in more northerly states, the warm, sunny days are dwindling. Heat lamps could take the chill off a 50- or 60-degree outdoor dinner but the 40s and below are something else. Plus there's rain and snow and other vagaries of late November weather. (Don't rule out hurricanes this year, either.)
As a Northeasterner whose children live in New England, I figure if there's a family Thanksgiving dinner in my 2020 future it's going to be indoors. But the odds of catching coronavirus are about 20 times higher indoors.
Is there a way to make Thanksgiving get-togethers safe?
Here's what I've learned: The two dealmakers (or breakers) seem to be size of the group and infection rate of the community. This informative article in the Atlantic wasn't focused on Thanksgiving directly, but the discussion in it applies to any indoor gathering. It offered this caveat from a medical expert who was in a quandary over what to do about an indoor dinner invitation she had: “It's just too complicated to figure it out on your own.”
We can try, starting with the simpler point of size: Smaller is better. Not just because it limits the number of people exposed to each other (and everyone they've been exposed to). Fewer people mean we can spread out and keep six feet or more distance while we pop chunks of candied yams, slices of cranberry bread and bites of turkey into our unmasked mouths. Forget about a meal at the dining room table. Think family room or living room with dinner plates on laps.
The trickier issue is community infection rate. That is, how many new Covid-19 cases are in your area and the one you're traveling to. Public health experts don't agree on what level or rate makes one place safer than another. Some say safe is a test positivity rate below 5 percent and only 5 to 10 new cases a day per 100,000 people. A health-policy professor at Harvard, Tom Tsai, peg the latter number slightly higher, at 25 cases per 100,000.
The real problem is that the numbers are hard to come by. There is no official centralized source. I've leaned on this New York Times daily counter to stay current on where the infection rate is rising or falling. You can poke around the site and get county by county cuurent counts. There are a number of other websites, such as GlobalEpidemics.org, that show the levels of community transmission by county. You definitely want under 5 percent; 1 percent would be beyond good--it suggests the disease is contained.
Beyond that, we have to trust that others at our dinner are behaving safely as well. We're all trying, but as the Atlantic put it:
...people generally don’t want to kill their friends and relatives. Most people want to do the right thing. But they can’t do it if they don’t know what it is.
painting:Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel