Family Holidays – Is the Tradition Safe in 2020?

Commentary COVID-19 Lifestyle Impacts

Family holidays: The Thanksgiving holiday begins in 10 days. It is the beginning of a six week period marking the family holiday season in America. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and even New Year’s are traditionally times for families to get together.

That may all change in 2020. The COVID pandemic, now in its ninth month in the United States, shows no signs of lessening. In fact, in recent weeks, we have seen record numbers of daily infections in the U.S.

So what does this mean for traditional family get-togethers?

Reopening Retreat

With record increases in infections, many areas are scaling back previously announced progress in reopening public locations and events. New York has recently announced plans to scale back the number of patrons allowed into restaurants, bars, and gyms. Beginning today, November 16, even jury service has been suspended as the virus impacts court proceedings1 and schools have been ordered back solely to online instruction.

Even in the largely rural state of Idaho, the governor has announced a return to a modified Stage 2 in their reopening plans. In addition, he ordered the National Guard to assist in hospitals due to increased COVID hospitalizations2.

This article was developed using Scrivener

Defining the Threat

Early in the pandemic, there was widespread concern about the virus being spread by contact with solid objects. As a result, we wiped everything we bought into our house with a disinfectant cloth.

However, we learned that the primary method of transmission is through an airborne mist. An infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks loudly or excitedly – and expells a virus-laden mist.

Some experts questioned the use of cloth masks at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, however, medical authorities almost universally accept mask-wearing as a primary defense against catching the virus. Tightly woven cloth has proven effective at stopping inhalation of virus-carrying mist. Additionally, it is effective against transmitting the virus to others if one has it already.


Still, many people resist mask-wearing through a misguided belief that protecting themselves and others somehow “violates their rights.” 

And many young people – the majority in my observation – don’t wear masks routinely. Most younger people, even if they catch the virus, tend to experience milder reactions. Therefore, they tend to believe that the virus isn’t as serious as government authorities preach.

Young people may be asymptomatic in many instances. In other words, they are infected by the virus but don’t show any outward signs. However, they are still fully capable of transmitting the virus to others. And those ‘others’ might not be as resistant to the effects of exposure as they are.

COVID-19, like any other virus, does not differentiate between family members and strangers. Thus, “I feel safe that my nephew or my grandchild won’t pass the virus to me because we are related,” can be a disastrous belief from an older person or someone with a compromised immune system.

“Now It Is Everywhere”

The third surge of COVID-19 has taken a new turn. Previously, in the spring again with the surge we saw in the summer, the virus was most concentrated in urban areas. However, the most recent surge – felt over that past two weeks – has begun to hit rural areas to a larger degree.

family holidays
COVID cases as of 10:56 PM 11/15/2020. The mid-west is particularly hard-hit.
Photo Courtesy Wall Street Journal

A Wall Street Journal article this morning described the latest surge: “Now, it is everywhere. People are becoming infected not just at big gatherings, but when they let their guard down, such as by not wearing a mask, while going about their daily routines or in smaller social settings that they thought of as safe—often among their own families or trusted friends.”3


no family holidays
The traditional Thanksgiving holiday may be unsafe this year.

So what do the experts say about celebrating the first of the family holidays in 2020 in the usual way? The advice is uniformly “don’t do it,” especially if you live in an urban area or otherwise high-positivity risk area.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most recognized authority on COVID-19 in the U.S., cautioned, “We’re going into a precarious situation. Cold weather is forcing people indoors, cases are going up in all age groups, and holidays are likely to bring people together in groups.” It’s a combination he called “a bad recipe for a tough time ahead.”4

Fauci noted that small gatherings in people’s homes currently account for many infections. “You get one person who’s asymptomatic and infected, and then all of a sudden, four or five people in that gathering are infected,” he said. “To me, that’s the exact scenario that you’re going to see on Thanksgiving.”5

In Kentucky, the 7-day positivity rate last Saturday reached 8.95% – well above the WHO-recommended “too high” threshold of 5%. Most telling is that the 7-day rate was only 7.68% on the previous Tuesday. Still, Kentucky seems to be one of the better states at observing mask-wearing and social distancing.

Governor Andy Beshear recommends that Thanksgiving this year “only be celebrated with members of one’s immediate household.”6. Currently, 94 of Kentucky’s 120 counties are in the ‘red zone’ with positivity rates above 5%.


Many retailers are responding to the experts’ advice regarding the usual family gathering for Thanksgiving. As a result, stores and restaurants are moving to address a Thanksgiving celebration conducted with only immediate household members.

family holidays smaller
Food stores will be stocking smaller turkeys this year in anticipation of people following guidance to avoid large family gatherings for Thanksgiving.
Photo Credit: Joni Hanebutt

Fewer guests around the table mean less meat. This year, grocers are stocking smaller turkeys -12-14 pounds in some cases rather than 16-20 pounds – and hams. Raley’s Inc., a chain of 130 grocery stores in California, bought as many smaller, frozen turkeys as it could months ago in preparation for the pandemic Thanksgiving7.

Restaurants, too, are planning for more take-out orders of pre-made Thanksgiving meals. Even the high-end restaurants are preparing to address a desire for ready-made, carry-out Thanksgiving meals. Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse sells a turkey dinner for two to four people for $175 to $250.

Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse sells a Thanksgiving meal to go, including a roasted half turkey breast and sides. The price is $165 for four people. The company is marketing it to loyal customers, hoping to make up for the lost business in its dining rooms this year8.

Family Holidays Remaining

Even if we exercise restraint for Thanksgiving, there are still the remaining family holidays of this season. But the outlook for those holiday periods is less clear.

The prospect of a vaccine being available within the next few weeks is encouraging. But logistically, it won’t be possible to inoculate everyone before the remaining holidays. Even if a vaccine is approved and can be manufactured in large quantities shortly, distribution will take some time.

Certainly, people could decide to take personal protection more seriously. Doing so in light of greater use of indoor spaces might reverse current infection trends. But it will take a commitment of most Americans – especially those under 50 – to practice mask-wearing and social distancing. This hasn’t been the case in recent months.

For older people who have large families, the concerns are magnified. For example, I am the oldest of my extended family. We normally get together en masse for the Christmas holiday. Thirty-three family members from 14 separate households all get together in one house for several days. However, we must now carefully consider whether this normally-enjoyable time is even thinkable in 2020.

Same Time Next Year

The tradition of family holidays is one which most families hold dear. Although it will be difficult, we all should consider a sabbatical from the tradition in 2020. 

Experts say that COVID-19 will likely not be eradicated. However, it seems likely that it will take on chronic infection status, remaining with us and proving deadly to some each year. Still, it will likely become controllable for most people with an effective vaccine for the masses.

If that’s the case, we can look forward to returning to normal family holidays in 2021. For me, I’d rather forego the holidays this year if it means increasing the chances that I and my loved ones will be around to celebrate next year.

What are your family’s plans for Thanksgiving 2020?

Comment in the space below.


  1. Accessed November 14, 2020.
  2. Scholl, Jacob. “COVID-19: Little Rolls Idaho Back to Modified Stage 2; National Guard to Help Hospitals.” Idaho Statesman, Idaho Statesman, 13 Nov. 2020, Accessed November 14, 2020.
  3. McKay, Betsy, and Erin Ailworth. “Covid Is Resurging, and This Time It’s Everywhere.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 15 Nov. 2020, Accessed November 16, 2020.
  4. Miller, Sara G. “Fauci Says Small Gatherings Driving New Covid Outbreaks, Worries about Thanksgiving.”, NBC Universal News Group, 28 Oct. 2020, Accessed November 14, 2020
  5. Ibid
  6. Vogt, Dustin. “Beshear Reports 2,120 New Cases of COVID-19 in Ky. Tuesday, Releases Thanksgiving Guidance.” Wave3.Com, 10 Nov. 2020,  Accessed November 14, 2020.
  7. Gasparro, Annie, and Jaewon Kang. “Thanksgiving in a Pandemic Means Smaller Birds, Fewer Leftovers.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 14 Nov. 2020, Accessed November 14, 2020.
  8. Ibid
Mike Worley

Mike is retired and lives in Louisville, KY, USA. He writes about lifestyle issues, particularly those affecting senior citizens. He also enjoys photography and works part-time as a college volleyball official.