How to host a safe outdoor Thanksgiving this year

Safety tips for Thanksgiving cooking

Thanksgiving is usually a time when we cozy up around the dinner table and share food and stories with those we love. But given the pandemic, experts are recommending a change in holiday plans this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta considers hosting people for a small outdoor dinner as moderately risky, as compared to low-risk activities like a virtual Thanksgiving or a dinner with only people who live in your household. And with rising coronavirus rates, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley advises families forego holiday gatherings altogether.

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But if you do plan to do something anyway, how should you think about the risk?

“This is a personal decision, and there are risk-versus-benefit calculations that people have to make,” said Usama Bilal, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Drexel University. “I would strongly advise against any sort of indoor gathering, but I wouldn’t necessarily advise against an outdoor one as long as you take the usual precautions — maintaining distance, wearing masks, and limiting the number of people.”

There are other tactics you can take, too, to make open-air festivities safer. But remember, masking up and social distancing generally remain your best defenses.

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Here’s how experts say to approach an outdoor Thanksgiving celebration.

Match guest list with size of your yard

The more people, the more risk you invite to the party. But just how small should you keep the guest list? The answer may depend on the size of your yard.

“Make sure the different households can be kept six feet apart,” Bilal said.

Map out table and chair placements in advance, including a spacious area for the serving table.

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Set ground rules in advance

Want to avoid Uncle Joe going in for that awkward welcome hug? Set some rules upfront to help minimize risky moments.

Beyond greeting etiquette, address mask usage, and also the level of precaution that’s feasible for everyone in the weeks leading up. Is self-quarantining an option? Can you limit unnecessary contact with strangers for 14 days? Does this make socially distanced socializing off-limits? What about grocery store trips? Let this be an open dialogue that weighs everyone’s comfort levels surrounding risk. And include concrete rules on what to do if someone wakes up Thanksgiving morning feeling sick.

“Everyone should feel comfortable canceling right now,” said Aimee Palumbo, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University.

If you prefer to stay home all together, be honest with your family and let them know early on. Your explanation doesn’t need to be lengthy. A simple “I really wish I could be there but don’t feel comfortable joining this year” is enough and will help prevent opening up the topic for debate.

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Plan meal for the lunch hour

It’s not uncommon for late November temperatures to drop into the 40s. Fire up the grill (grilled turkey anyone?), and make the best of it by gathering during the warmest part of the day. Everyone should come prepared to hang outside, which may mean bringing a few extra layers and a blanket.

If you choose to create a warmer space with heaters and a tent, make sure that at least two tent sides remain open.

“You don’t want to re-create an indoor space outdoors,” Palumbo said.

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Provide extra serving utensils

Assign each household their own set of serving utensils.

“Act like if you go to a restaurant — you don’t want to share the salt shaker or anything from table to table,” Bilal said.

While surface transmission is low, if someone coughs into their hand, and then mindlessly touches a shared object, germs could spread between households.

“The more we minimize risk, the better,” Bilal said.

But that doesn’t mean you need to use plastic spoons and forks. As long as all dishes are washed beforehand, you’re safe to skip the disposables and the excess trash they create.

Mask up unless eating; stay outside unless using the bathroom

Your best defense when venturing inside to the bathroom is wearing a mask and thoroughly washing your hands. But experts advise keeping your mask on outdoors, too, except when eating or drinking.

“When you take it on and off, be mindful of touching it. Ideally you need to wash your hands before and after,” Bilal said.

Skip travel this year

Any kind of travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19, according to the CDC. Inviting family members from out of town requires weighing the risk versus benefit for everyone involved.

“The moment you go into an airport, you’re seeing other people,” Bilal said. “Driving is safer, but the important thing to look at is where everyone is coming from.”

Experts encourage keeping celebrations local, particularly if case numbers are spiking in areas where out-of-towners live, or if high-risk guests are attending. To gather everyone together, host a Houseparty or other virtual meetup during the celebration.

Be mindful of older relatives

The risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, which makes decisions surrounding older relatives challenging.

“Spending time with family is often so important for the grandparents,” Palumbo said. “People need to decide what they’re comfortable with, but be mindful of what rates in the community look like, and be even more careful about isolating beforehand.”

Have honest conversations up front, so everyone understands each other’s risk factors and comfort level. And you may want to consider playing it extra safe. Would the family be OK with shortening the hangout and sending everyone home with to-go meals so that masks don’t need to be removed?

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Minimize or eliminate alcohol

It may be family tradition to share a few bottles of wine around the table. But the CDC advises against that this year, declaring alcohol a high-risk activity because of how it clouds our judgment.

“People become very huggy when they’re drunk,” Bilal said. “If you’re going to have alcohol, it’s very important to talk about these behaviors in advance so that everyone has it in their mind to try to avoid them. When you’re in the moment, after drinking a beer, you want to have a plan.”

Be prepared to cancel

Bad weather? A local spike in COVID-19 cases? In either scenario, experts advise postponing. Although there isn’t one magic number, 5% is the general benchmark for positive community test rates that epidemiologists consider concerning.

“There will be more Thanksgivings,” Bilal said. “These are some of the most important people in your life, and you don’t want this holiday to be the one you remember of someone ending up in the hospital for weeks.”

Don’t let your guard down

Anytime you leave the house, there’s a level of risk involved right now. It’s also impossible to know exactly what everyone is doing 24/7. And that means you need to be extra cautious with anyone who’s living outside of your household.

“This virus knows no trust. Trust doesn’t really protect you,” Bilal said. “You need to be as careful with your family as you would with anyone else.”

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