Alicia Olvera’s family, like many families in and beyond the Brazos Valley, usually has a large, multigenerational Thanksgiving celebration. She cooks two or three turkeys for her children and grandchildren, and they bring other dishes. But this year, with COVID-19 case numbers rising and the recent deaths of two extended family members due to the virus, Olvera’s family is considering whether, and how, to gather for the holiday.
“We’re still thinking about it, but we’re thinking that maybe each child celebrates with their own families on their own,” Olvera said Thursday in Spanish in a phone interview with The Eagle. “This is the way we have to live nowadays.”
Olvera’s family is one of many who are trying to figure out Thanksgiving plans. Some are planning gatherings as usual, and others are holding modified, outdoor Thanksgiving dinners with fewer guests. Still others are canceling events entirely, choosing to eat only with those in their immediate household, and socialize online with extended family members and friends.
Debates have raged on social media for days about holiday-related gatherings, with some popular memes urging people to “stop living in fear” and get together as normal, with others — including numerous public health experts — issuing strong statements that discourage large gatherings and Thanksgiving-related travel.
Olvera’s family mourned the loss of one extended relative who died from COVID-19 at a service last week, with another memorial scheduled for this week. She said that the losses have served as a reminder of the importance of celebrating life and the present moment, and said safety is essential as the family figures out how to gather.
“We have to celebrate every moment, and we have to take the utmost precautions as we celebrate and gather together around a meal,” Olvera said. “We don’t know when will be our last moment, so we need to celebrate every day.”
Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, urged conscientiousness in a Tuesday interview as families and close friends consider whether and how to gather for Thanksgiving and the holiday season. She said there wasn’t a “magic number” she recommended for gathering sizes, but smaller is better — and she also suggested outdoor events as a safer alternative.
“What I keep hearing is, ‘I really want to see my parents, or grandma, or grandkids, and we really want to hold each other and hug each other.’ I understand that need, but if touching the ones you love poses a very dangerous health risk, then we might need to be creative and skip that physical element this year,” Fischer said.
Fischer urged people to get tested for the virus if they are planning to travel, and highlighted Texas A&M’s testing push in recent days. The CDC website notes that getting a negative test result “does not eliminate all risk” of spreading the virus.
“Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the CDC website reads. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
Fischer said “now is the time” to get tested and not hide from knowing one’s status with regard to the virus.
“There are certainly safe ways we can interact with each other. Most people agree that knowing what those safe things are and then really carrying through and sticking with them is going to be our challenge,” Fischer said. “Everybody needs this holiday and needs this time of year. We really need that for our mental health, which is an important part of our overall health.”
Annmarie MacNamara is an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Texas A&M who employs neuroscientific methods to understand emotional processing. In a Wednesday interview, MacNamara described the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a unique, prolonged and multifaceted stressor.
“It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. People can endure short-term stress reasonably well when they know it’s not lasting forever, but if you don’t know if or when it will ever end, then it’s sort of in another ballpark — and it’s hard to know how to cope with that,” MacNamara said. “There’s a fatigue around it, and unfortunately I think it’s led some people to take COVID less seriously or not comply with procedures in place to try and protect people.”
Usually, MacNamara explained, holidays give people a break from ongoing stresses of work or school; the COVID-related disruption, alteration or, in some cases, cancellation of rituals provide more stress and frustration for individuals.
“I hope that people can find a way to connect in safe ways with their families and friends,” MacNamara said. She added, “I think it’s important to focus on what’s important about the holidays and connecting with others,” and mentioned online or outdoor gatherings as safer ways to socialize.
Promising news about forthcoming vaccines, MacNamara said, are a boost for people, because it suggests that the pandemic’s end may be several months away and not years.
“We’re in very uncharted territory. We don’t fully know how this will affect people, because we don’t have much data on things like this,” she said of long-term psychological impacts of the pandemic.
Sally Manthei hasn’t seen her out-of-town grandchildren in months. She and her husband, Ludy, are planning to host a small outdoor barbecue the day after Thanksgiving, but are limiting the gathering to 10 people, she said.
In pre-COVID times, Manthei and her family typically hold a larger gathering with leftovers from her church’s Thanksgiving dinner and a piñata for the seven youngest ones. This year, she said the smaller event will be canceled if it rains; current forecasts suggest rain may occur on Friday.
“With a 1,335-square-foot house, it’s just not safe to have people from different cities congregate,” Manthei said. “I am also very thankful that everyone in my immediate and extended family has been healthy with no adverse effects from all the health issues that are going on and I hope and pray that it continues. … So, I try to convince myself that if Christmas and Thanksgiving aren’t what I am used to, that it’s OK. We are still healthy and hopefully, next year will be better.”
Kristin Harper said her family isn’t traveling, but plans to host a Thanksgiving “Dinner in the Driveway” this week. The plan, Harper said, is to set up several tables outside so people can eat in small groups.
“We’ll have the food set up inside, buffet-style, and ask guests to wear the masks and plastic gloves we provide as they serve themselves. We are still figuring things out and being clear with those attending that we are trying to be safe and welcome suggestions,” Harper said. “We just want to celebrate life with old and new friends and hope to find a way to make that happen.”
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