Thanksgiving is going to look and feel different — and a lot smaller — for many families this year.
Federal and state officials are asking everyone to stay home this Thanksgiving, as public health experts worry that holiday gatherings could result in a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases.
Christopher Gill says ordinarily, his family would host a big Thanksgiving dinner.
"We'd have like 20 people, and we'd cram them all in, and my wife and I would spend two days cooking solid,” Gill said. “And this year, I think it's just going to be the four of us."
Gill's taking this seriously because he knows a thing or two about pandemics. He's an infectious disease expert at the Boston University School of Public Health. If people just go ahead and gather around the dinner table with their usual Thanksgiving crew, he said, the spike in cases is going to be significant.
"I think there's no way to make this safe,” Gill said. “You know, there's just no way. So Thanksgiving's got to be small this year."
That's the plan for Vonzelle Johnson of Dorchester. Usually, she'd host sisters, brothers, cousins and all their kids for dinner, and then make the rounds of other relatives’ houses. But this year, COVID-19 hit close to home.
"I have a brother who actually caught it, and we had to do a lot of praying and stuff for him while he was up there in the hospital,” she said. “He's still dealing with it, but he's at a rehabilitation home. They're trying to get him strong and walking again and to breathe on his own at the moment.”
Thats where he will be Thursday instead of spending Thanksgiving at her house, she said.
"He's missing his family big time, like we're missing him," she said.
Ruth Zakarin of Sharon is also forgoing a big family get-together this year. Ordinarily, she and her family would visit relatives in New Jersey and New York. They’re staying home, but will still see some friends.
"We have decided to have Thanksgiving in our garage and open up the garage doors and put a table for the four of us who live in my home, and a separate table for a couple — our friends — and have a platter of food at each table," she said.
It’s hard not seeing family for the holiday, Zakarin said.
“We're doing it for the right reasons and to keep everybody safe, so it's the right thing to do,” she said. “But it's strange that we haven't seen our parents — or the kids haven't seen their grandparents — in a really long time.”
Megan Quinlan said she wishes she’d thought to have an early Thanksgiving with relatives outdoors a few weeks ago while it was still warm out. She’s a school nurse at Reading Memorial High School.
“We are really concerned that we're going to see a spike in the schools two weeks after Thanksgiving,” she said. “A lot of the transmission has been within families.”
Quinlan said she’s heard many families are still planning on getting together.
“So we are really preparing for having a lot of people out,” she said. “And at that point, we may have to close schools because we just don't have the staff if everybody's quarantining.”
For college students, Thanksgiving can be a good long weekend to head back home, rest up before finals, and eat a lot. But most universities are asking students not to travel.
Boston University senior Doran Kim isn’t headed home to Chicago. But she’s OK with that.
“In all honesty, a lot of people in my generation, a lot of kids I know, they're not super pro-Thanksgiving,” she said. “A lot of people, I think, in my friends circles and kind of a liberal, young demographic, see Thanksgiving as a celebration of stolen land more than anything.”
Also, Kim said she spent five months with her family after being sent home at the start of the pandemic in the spring, and she’ll see them again for the upcoming winter break.
What's usually a nice holiday has been the source of a lot of anxiety this year.
"I'm probably hearing about Thanksgiving almost every hour in my clinical practice," said Anne Fishel, a clinical psychologist and family therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Fishel has some advice for those who are still suffering over how to break the news that they’re not coming.
"Maybe talk about how disappointed you are and how much you love them and wish that you could be together and you are already looking forward to next year — only if these things are true. But I think they often are,” she said. “I think that many families are worried that this could be a permanent disruption. And so maybe reassuring family members that this is just a sabbatical year. This is just a gap year."
A lot of families say they’re planning on getting together virtually this year. Zoom has lifted its usual time limit for video calls on Thursday.
But to Wendy Murphy of Belmont, that’s just not what the holiday is about.
“You can’t do any of the Thanksgiving stuff by Zoom,” Murphy said. “You can’t enjoy the scents. You can't enjoy the music in the same way. You can't sit down and watch a football game together. You can't do anything that matters through Zoom. So I'm going to protest against Zoom, just for Thanksgiving.”
She’s sticking with the biggest tradition of the holiday — cooking a turkey — even though this year there will only be one person at dinner who eats it.
“I'm a vegetarian, but I am cooking that damned turkey,” she said. “Because I'm going to have to give up so much this year. My kids are giving up so much this year. We refuse to give up the smell of that turkey cooking in this house."
This year, even cooking a turkey can feel like an act of defiance.
While next Thanksgiving, hopefully, will be an easier one, with normal traditions restored, some losses are permanent. Amanda Twaddle of Hudson, New Hampshire will have two empty seats at the table this year. Her husband's father died in May from cancer. And three weeks later, her husband's aunt died of COVID-19.
“We may put an empty plate just to signify that we know we're missing people,” she said. "I've just ordered a couple of bottles of a wine that she would bring up, so we'll have a toast. Sort of a ‘wish you were here.’”
Even in tough years, Twaddle said, holidays need to be celebrated. And they do have a lot to be grateful for, she said.
"So I think when we sit down for that Thanksgiving meal, it will be in celebration of what we do have,” Twaddle said. “It will be an acknowledgment of what we've lost. But, you know, we're all safe, thank goodness. We’re all are doing everything we can do to keep each other safe. And we take it one day at a time."
That, she says, has been the lesson of 2020.