Long before arguments can begin at the Thanksgiving table over politics, families are debating if or how they should gather as another wave of the coronavirus spreads across the country.
Since the pandemic began here in March, Renae Williams McConnell, 65, and her 70-year-old husband have kept to themselves in their Treasure Island home and haven’t returned to their small farm near Vidalia, Ga.
Normally, they would host 25-30 family members and friends for Thanksgiving at their farmhouse. This year, they thought seriously about canceling. But the darker side of coronavirus fatigue is setting in among family members young and old who have been kept apart for months.
“We really felt like it is too much of an emotional toll for the grandkids for us not to see them on Thanksgiving,” McConnell said. The children, ages 8 to 20, have all talked of being depressed at not seeing their cousins and especially their grandfather, “because he has been the male figure in their lives.”
The emotional toll of isolation is often at the center of the Thanksgiving decision.
President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, is urging Americans to visit elderly family members for Thanksgiving.
“This kind of isolation is one of the unspoken tragedies of the elderly who are now being told don’t see your family at Thanksgiving,” Atlas, a radiologist, told Fox News Monday evening.
But public health officials worry that traditional Thanksgiving gatherings could add fuel to the current outbreak.
“Traveling from one place to another, meeting inside with lots of families for a long time without masks, that’s a formula for a massive explosion,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director, in a recent interview with NBC. “Unless we change our Thanksgiving plans, we are going to have a very unmerry Christmas, I’m afraid.”
At least 61 percent of people have already had holiday plans canceled or changed due to the pandemic, according to a recent survey by The Vacationer, which conducts studies on traveling.
“This number could balloon to 75 percent," said Eric Jones, the Rowan College mathematics instructor who analyzed the survey for the site.
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Diana Dechichio, 66, of Wesley Chapel has already canceled both Thanksgiving and Christmas, much to the dismay of her elderly mother.
“My mom is 90 and in assisted living,” Dechichio said. “She is very disappointed and doesn’t really understand.”
Jamie Schwartz-Cohen, 60, of Dunedin has been careful to wear masks and only eat outside at restaurants. She even converted her Clearwater dog-grooming business to curbside pickup only so that her customers stay outside. But she is struggling with Thanksgiving. Feeling pressured to visit with elderly relatives, she’s making her college student take a COVID-19 test, and she will get tested herself before the holiday.
She tends to be the most careful in her family, and when it comes to easing up, “there’s pressure there, for sure,” she said.
“I have family on both sides of the political fence,” Schwartz-Cohen said. “I’m not about to break up my family over this.”
A divided family is keeping Karen Heisele Underwood, 57, away from Thanksgiving this year, a holiday she usually organizes for a dozen relatives.
“I will be eating a turkey leg alone,” said Underwood, who lives in Dunedin. “My sister-in-law believes it’s a hoax. None of my family isolates. I want to be around for future holidays, and I don’t want to be responsible for my 90-year-old mom getting the virus.”
Some people who are taking the virus seriously but also want to gather for Thanksgiving have come up with elaborate plans to stay safe.
Jessica Haengel, 37, is isolating for the two weeks before Thanksgiving, as is the rest of her family.
“Whenever we have a family gathering, we all quarantine. We did that for Father’s Day, for my dad’s birthday,” said Haengel, who lives in Clearwater. “It’s a way to still see each other.”
The Centers for Disease Control says the best plan is to have a small dinner at home with only people who live in your household, and then hold a Zoom meeting with extended family. The next best thing is a dinner outside with tables spread far apart, masks, hand washing and only one person serving food to avoid cross contamination on serving spoons. For greater peace of mind, the Tampa Bay area BayCare urgent care clinics are offering rapid coronavirus tests.
The McConnells plan to travel to their Georgia farm. They bought a travel trailer months ago, so they can have their own quarters while visiting family. Thanksgiving will be outside with heaters set up and people keeping their distance. The group will only be nine people this year, a third of its normal size.
“We are just trying to negotiate the waters,” McConnell said. “We skipped all the other holidays since this started, but we just feel like Thanksgiving is the largest, the time when everyone gets together.”
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