Health officials recommend smaller, outdoor Thanksgiving celebrations

Posted 11/19/20

Leslie Cox normally spends Thanksgiving Day hosting a gathering with upwards of 30 friends and family members.

This year — as daily case counts of COVID-19 and deaths caused by the virus …

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Health officials recommend smaller, outdoor Thanksgiving celebrations

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Leslie Cox normally spends Thanksgiving Day hosting a gathering with upwards of 30 friends and family members.

This year — as daily case counts of COVID-19 and deaths caused by the virus continue to set daily record highs — she’s opting for a different, safer Thanksgiving affair.

“We love to do it,” Cox said of her family tradition, “but this year, we’ve been kind of worried about what we might be able to do for a while.”

Thanksgiving is known as a holiday which brings people together who are often regularly physically far apart — cousins, aunts, uncles and significant others alike. During years with smaller gatherings, Cox, of Pittsboro, said a dozen people attend her gathering, at which her husband, Brendan, cooks a delicious meal for everyone in attendance.

But this year, with an indoor gathering limit of 10 people in North Carolina to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even a dozen people is too many.

Instead, Cox, who owns Oakleaf with her husband in Carrboro, said she will be delivering a Thanksgiving meal to her mom from their restaurant — but they won’t eat together. Her mother, who has congestive heart failure, was the most concerned about meeting at all, Cox said. They’ll sit outside in their masks with her parents, both over 80 years old, for about an hour before they head to Thanksgiving with their “social pod,” three other couples who also own local restaurants. Outside at one of the couple’s farms, the group will share a Thanksgiving feast they’ve all helped to create — turkey, oyster stuffing and pastry desserts galore.

“We’ll have a really good time,” Cox said of their new plans. “For us, adjusting it does sting a little bit, but I would always rather take a little bit of a hit on my side to keep my mother safe.”

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has repeatedly emphasized public health messaging urging all people to adjust their Thanksgiving plans. The governor announced that the state would remain paused in Phase 3 at a news conference last Tuesday, and urged North Carolinians to focus on how to celebrate the holiday safely.

“Even though this means changes to long-standing holiday traditions for many of us, take comfort in the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With our continued dedication, by next Thanksgiving or sooner, this pandemic can be behind us,” Cooper said. “But that takes everyone committing to a safe holiday, even if that means changes this year. Reduce the invite list. Space out your tables. Get a COVID test before the event. Or better yet, connect virtually.”

‘It wants to spread’

In Chatham, the Public Health Department has echoed this guidance, emphasizing that limiting any gatherings to the people you live with is crucial in preventing the spread of the virus.

“The virus doesn’t care if you are related,” Interim Health Director Mike Zelek told the News + Record. “It wants to spread. We have seen family gatherings, locally and across the country, that have led to many new cases and, sadly, deaths. With the understanding that informal gatherings, even among families, are a main driver of the pandemic, it is important to limit your ‘bubble’ to those closest to you — your household.”

Because the coronavirus spreads by respiratory droplets from your mouth and nose, Zelek said being around other people at all is risky, but particularly so in a typical Thanksgiving environment — inside, around a table and without masks while people eat. That’s why, he said, it’s important to limit the size of any gathering and to continue practicing the three W’s (wash your hands, wear a mask, wait six feet) around people you don’t live with.

Zelek said the best options for celebrating the holiday safely this year include eating only with people you live with, having a virtual dinner with family and friends and preparing family recipes to share safely with family neighbors, especially those at a higher risk of illness from contracting the virus.

If you do decide to attend a gathering, Zelek recommends:

• Keeping it small (remember, the max is 10 people indoors in the new executive order)

• Practicing the 3 W’s

• Opting for pre-plated meals instead of buffet style

• Going outdoors, weather permitting

• Get tested for COVID-19 before you attend. Testing options in Chatham can be found at

“However, a negative test is not a free pass to let down your guard,” Zelek said. “Tests are imperfect and only tell what is going on at the time they are collected. You could still bring COVID to a gathering, and you can still get infected at a gathering.”

‘Keep the people that you love safe’

As of Tuesday morning, 317,495 North Carolinians have tested positive for COVID-19 and 4,852 have died from the virus — with cases, deaths and hospitalizations continually setting record highs in the state. In Chatham, there have been 2,193 positive cases and 65 deaths caused by the virus.

Even with such concerning trends, some people are still suggesting the virus is not as big of a threat as health officials are widely claiming, with many of those people pushing back against safety protocols, like wearing a mask or socially distancing. If you fear others at a gathering will not practice the three W’s, Zelek said, it is better to stay away.

“If you attend large gatherings, especially indoors and where the 3 W’s are not consistently followed, sooner or later you will become infected and will likely spread the virus to others,” he said regarding those who aren’t taking the virus seriously.

For Cox, changing her well-loved Thanksgiving traditions wasn’t ideal, but making the choice was easy.

“It’s sad to not be able to do the things that you do every year — those family traditions, especially the ones built around the holidays, are really important to people,” she said. “But I think there’s also obviously a very important family tradition of caring for each other, and wanting to keep the people that you love safe. We always do the things that we have to do to take care of our family and this is just one of those things.”

Though Chatham is currently seeing a rise in cases like in the rest of the state, its case rates have been consistently lower than in surrounding areas. That, Zelek said, is because of the community’s “steadfast response” to the pandemic. Still, he urged folks to remain vigilant, particularly as the holidays approach.

“This is a deadly disease,” he said. “As of Friday, more than 4,700 North Carolinians died due to COVID-19, 63 in Chatham County. These are your family, friends and neighbors. There is no better reason to be safe, cautious and smart around the holidays than looking out for your fellow humans.”

You can find more resources for how to celebrate Thanksgiving safely on the Governor's website.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at


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