Pandemic Thanksgiving plans pivot after a surge in coronavirus cases

People wait in a very long line in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, as they wait to have a Covid-19 test.


By EMILY DAVIES | The Washington Post | Published: November 24, 2020

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Just two weeks ago, Dena Nihart finalized plans to meet dozens of relatives for Thanksgiving dinner beneath a tent in North Carolina's Outer Banks. They agreed to quarantine for 14 days before the holiday and rent 10 tables so they could separate by household during the big meal.

But then, last Monday, Nihart's body began to ache. By Wednesday, she could barely hold up her head. And by Friday, as Nihart waited for her coronavirus test results with cases surging around her, her family had canceled Thanksgiving altogether.

"It just sucks," Nihart said from her bedroom, where she had just placed an online order for a turkey breast. The 45-year-old, who works for a construction company, will spend the holiday alone in her apartment in Arlington, Va.

Families across the region were willing to do almost anything to see one another for Thanksgiving this year. After a long and lonely summer, the number of coronavirus cases seemed to be just low enough by fall that it appeared as though they could find a way to safely gather for the holiday. The recent spike in community spread, however, has thrown a wrench into even the best laid plans. Newly sickened, exposed or fearing the rampant spread of the virus, people in D.C. and beyond say they are canceling their Thanksgiving plans and preparing for Turkey Day at home.

One area epidemiologist called off a trip to New Jersey a few weeks ago, and is now searching for a park at a halfway point to meet her family for a distanced tailgate. Another couple canceled their dinner reservations in an outdoor tent in favor of a carryout meal. Two roommates, 24 and 25, decided to have a wine night instead of traveling home to Texas. And a deacon whose pastor exposed him to the coronavirus last weekend is preparing for a quiet night alone.

The last-minute pivots are in line with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which on Thursday recommended against traveling or gathering for the holiday. Agency officials stressed that 1 million new cases were reported in the country in the week before Thanksgiving and warned that small gatherings of friends and relatives could accelerate the outbreak. Leaders in the Washington region echoed the guidance multiple times leading up to the holiday, pleading with their constituents to opt for virtual celebrations.

Still, many area residents are hoping to get together with loved ones be it outdoors or in small numbers. Thousands of people preparing to see relatives and friends lined up at coronavirus testing sites across the District over the past week. The number of people tested daily has risen from fewer than 2,000 during the summer to as many as 4,200, said Christopher Geldart, the city's director of public works.

On Thursday, Cat Lanigan stood with her laptop in hand about halfway through a line that wrapped around five blocks from a coronavirus testing site in Northeast Washington.

Two weeks ago, Lanigan, 23, and her three roommates decided to condense their pod and stop eating at restaurants to prepare to go home for the holidays. They all were getting tested before traveling home to see older parents and family members.

"I feel like I just need to go home with people I can feel safe with," she said. "I just feel so much instability right now. Covid changes. The political landscape changes. It's mental health."

Lanigan plans to drive home Tuesday to reunite with her immediate family of five, a far cry from her standard 40-person holiday gathering, but a comfort nonetheless.

Danielle Quarles, 41, a director of clinical research in Arlington, decided to abandon plans to see family near New York because of the rising number of coronavirus cases. Instead, she will drive her kids to meet up with their cousins at a park in Philadelphia if they all receive negative coronavirus tests.

"We know that winter is going to be hard and we won't have opportunities to do it very often as covid continues to surge and the weather is cold," she said. "So we really just wanted to find a way to let the kids see each other."

The cousins plan to roam the park in masks and munch on pre-packed turkey.

Others faced with spending the holiday alone have turned to volunteer organizations to find community. Liana Ruiz, 22, who tutors a pod of students in Arlington, has only her cat, Yuki, left as Thanksgiving company after her parents forbade her from coming home because of coronavirus concerns.

She signed up for multiple shifts with Food & Friends, a local nonprofit organization that prepares and delivers meals to thousands of Washington-area residents.

Martha's Table, a longtime D.C. charity, has more than 100 volunteers signed up for its annual Community Harvest Dinner. This year, the thousands of expected attendees will walk up or drive through to receive meals.

Only a few days away from Pandemic Thanksgiving, some locals are still deciding where, and with whom, they will spend the holiday.

Tyrus Williams, 24, stood at the end of a snaking line for a coronavirus test Thursday afternoon, his first trip out of the house since he received a positive diagnosis two weeks prior. His body aches were gone, congestion cured. But the test would help determine whether he could travel home for his favorite holiday.

Every year, Williams spends months looking forward to Thanksgiving, when many people gather at his family home in Massachusetts. This year, he hoped that at least a subset of the annual group would get tested and quarantine so they could get together for a big meal and hours of watching football on the couch.

"How am I feeling? I'm upset. This is my favorite holiday, and now it's not going to be a thing," Williams said before asking an emergency medical services professional near him whether enough tests were available that day (they were).

But it was not only Williams's test that stood between him and a semi-normal Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, his mom began to feel sick.

"And she does all the cooking, so if she has covid," he said, "no one is doing Thanksgiving."