How to Keep Your Family Safe This Thanksgiving

Table festively decorated for autumn holidays
Cavan/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • With COVID-19 surging throughout the country, families may need to make changes to the typical Thanksgiving celebration to keep each other safe.
  • Keeping your gathering small, eating outside, following social distancing guidelines, and avoiding shared utensils can help reduce the risk of COVID-19 on Thanksgiving.
  • Communicating guidelines for guests in advance is key to avoiding conflict. You should also talk to your kids about what to expect. 

The countdown to Thanksgiving is on. But amid skyrocketing cases of COVID-19 and new prevention mandates and lockdowns in many states, families across the country are rethinking their traditional Turkey Day plans for 2020. Is it safe to celebrate Thanksgiving at all this year?

“The worst thing you can do it treat this Thanksgiving like any other year,” warns Jill Grimes, MD, author of “The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook.

There are few, if any, 100% safe activities during the pandemic. With that being said, keeping your celebration small and making smart changes at your feast could reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 on one of the biggest family gathering days of the year.

Limit Your Guest List

It’s all too easy to let our guards down around the people we trust most—our families. However, small household gatherings (like birthday parties and dinners) are one of the main reasons COVID-19 cases are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The fact is, anytime you get together with someone you don’t live with, you may be putting yourself at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus. One of the best ways to protect yourself and your loved ones on Thanksgiving is by limiting the gathering solely to people in your household.

Jill Grimes, MD

The worst thing you can do is treat this Thanksgiving like any other year.

— Jill Grimes, MD

“The number one change that I hope we see people make this Thanksgiving is keeping it to their immediate family only,” says Grimes. “That doesn’t mean your extended family with multiple generations and cousins, but literally just your immediate nuclear family.”

If you are choosing to invite people who aren’t in your bubble, keep the guest list as small as possible. Your guests should get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test no later than a week before Thanksgiving.

The results from a PCR test can take longer than those of an antigen test, but they are more accurate, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even after testing negative, guests should also quarantine at home before the big day, says Grimes.

Just because you can’t have a huge family gathering in person doesn’t mean you can’t connect with your loved ones near and far on Thanksgiving, though. Set up iPads, laptops, and other devices around the table and videoconference with your relatives during your meal, suggests Grimes.

Plan to Dine Outside, if Possible

Where you have Thanksgiving dinner can make a big difference in the overall safety of your celebration. Generally speaking, the CDC considers indoor spaces to be riskier than outdoor spaces, since they have less ventilation. If the weather allows you to dine outdoors, like in a backyard or on a patio, consider doing Thanksgiving al fresco this year.

Too cold, rainy, or snowy to have Thanksgiving outside? Your next best option is to increase the ventilation of your indoor dining space by opening windows and doors or putting your heating system on continuous circulation.

“Some people are flipping their garages into indoor-outdoor settings. Just have the garage doors up so you can have a ton of airflow, and maybe a throw a fan in there, as well,” says Grimes.

Keep in mind that ventilation guidelines apply anywhere your guests might go—including the restroom, so keep your bathroom window open, says Shanina C. Knighton, PhD, an instructor and hygiene researcher at Case Western Reserve University’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. Knighton has studied how to prevent COVID-19 infections.

Setting the Table for Safety

Minimizing the risk of COVID-19 during Thanksgiving requires a lot of advanced planning, particularly for the meal itself. Start by making sure there’s as much space as possible between guests who aren’t from the same household around the dinner table. The CDC recommends a minimum of 6 feet of distance between people who don’t live together.

As for dining, the less people touch dishes and serving utensils, the better. That may mean ditching buffet-style meals and forgoing the tradition of passing dishes around the table in favor of a set eating time with meals plated by one person with sanitized hands, says Knighton.

“If Thanksgiving dinner is self-serve, some individuals may or may not clean their hands correctly. Serving everyone at the same time means you’re less likely to have multiple individuals touching the same spoons,” she says. “All it takes is one time for someone to slip up and everyone is less safe.”

You could take safety measures one step further and asks guests to bring their own food and utensils. That could help take away the temptation of sharing food and serving spoons, says Grimes.

Shanina C. Knighton, PhD

Families could incorporate some sort of task force within their families to make sure that safe protocols are being following throughout the gathering.

— Shanina C. Knighton, PhD

Finally, make it easy for guests to keep their hands clean during dinner and celebration. Make sure sinks are stocked with soap and plenty of clean towels to dry hands. Place bottles of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol next to the dinner table. And at least once an hour, wipe down high-touch surfaces, like doorknobs, tables, countertops, light switches, and faucets, said Knighton.

Establish Ground Rules Ahead of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is sure to be different in 2020 than in any previous year. However, the exact measures used to keep the holiday safe and fun may vary from family to family.

“With the political climate and everything that has happened this year with perpetuated systemic racism, COVID-19, and the very opposing belief systems we have in this country, it’s likely that individuals in your own family will have very disparate beliefs and that can be painful,” says Leela Magavi, MD, a board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California.

Don’t wait until everyone arrives for Thanksgiving dinner to level-set on the things you’ll all do to keep each other safe, though. Decide what you’re comfortable with, write it down, and communicate it with your guests well in advance, says Magavi.

“It all goes back to boundaries. While some individuals may derive comfort from how others perceive them, and may want to avoid boundaries to appease others, this can lead to conflict,” she warns.

On the day of the celebration, gently remind guests who aren’t following the ground rules about the reasons why taking those precautions are important to you. For example, if an uncle shows up without a mask, explain again that you've made that request to model good behavior for the kids and protect the community. “Reminding them can be awkward, but it’s monumental during this time,” says Magavi.

Be Aware of the Risks of Alcohol

If we’ve learned anything from the reopening of bars during the pandemic, it’s that drinking makes it easier for COVID-19 to spread. Alcohol can make people talk louder and produce more virus aerosols, and lose their inhibitions around protecting themselves and others.

Your Thanksgiving dinner might be less risky if you limit how much alcohol (if any) is served. “The issue is that if people are going to relax on Thanksgiving and start watching football and doing all the normal things, it’s going to be hard not to fall back into old habits in general, and alcohol lowers our guard even more,” says Grimes. “I don’t think people have to say no alcohol, but they do need to be aware of the risks.”

Talking to Kids About Thanksgiving Changes

With all the changes the pandemic is forcing us to make to Thanksgiving this year, it’s important for parents to talk to their kids about what to expect and why things are going to be different, says Magavi.

Leela Magavi, MD

I advise people to talk to children about how it might be smaller groups this year, but that doesn’t equate to being alone or lonely, and you can still have a fun-filled time.

— Leela Magavi, MD

“The media illustrates the holidays as a time spent with loved ones in big groups, and children can get very excited about this. I advise people to talk to children about how it might be smaller groups this year, but that doesn’t equate to being alone or lonely, and you can still have a fun-filled time,” she says.

Getting your kids involved in planning a safe celebration can give them a sense of control and make them feel better. For example, if you can’t have the grandparents over for dinner this year, ask your children about their ideas on celebrating with them in other ways, such as by sending handmade cards or dancing together over Zoom. Then, work together as a family to set up a schedule for Thanksgiving.

“Discussing it in advance of the holidays will help kids know what to expect and make them feel more calm and more excited that their family will partake in their own ideas and plans,” adds Magavi.

What This Means For You

Small family gatherings are contributing to the surge of COVID-19 cases. That doesn’t mean you have to cancel Thanksgiving altogether, but making some changes to the traditional celebration can go a long way to protecting you, your loved ones, and the community at large.

The safest way to have Thanksgiving is solely with the people who live in your home. If you are inviting other friends and relatives, stick to a small guest list and consider dining outside. You should also avoid sharing serving utensils and sitting too close together. Experts say that this Thanksgiving can be just as fun and meaningful as in previous years, even if it looks a little different. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Holiday celebrations and small gatherings.

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus disease testing basics.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deciding to go out.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Celebrating Thanksgiving.

  5. Soucheray S. More evidence points to bars adding to COVID-19 spread. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

By Joni Sweet
 Joni Sweet is an experienced health and wellness writer who balances science with self-care.