Listen: How to Cancel Thanksgiving

The United States has passed a terrible milestone: 250,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. But with the holidays approaching and the spread worse than ever, the situation could become even more dire. Now is the time to have hard conversations about Thanksgiving, even though it will be awkward.

On this episode of the Social Distance podcast, James Hamblin and Katherine Wells answer listener questions about the holidays and give advice on how to cancel plans. Listen to their conversation here:

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Below is a transcript of listener questions and responses, edited for length and clarity.

Katherine Wells: Here’s a general question from a listener: “How do I decide whether I celebrate the holidays with family if everyone in our family is being safe and masking and we live in a lower-risk area, but the holidays are inside? Is it still a giant mistake to celebrate with our family for the holidays? Thanksgiving is my favorite.”

James Hamblin: It’s really hard to imagine a gathering inside where people are also masked, because usually Thanksgiving involves eating. If you have a small family and you can do things outside and everyone tries to really quarantine for two weeks before and after this gathering, there are ways that it could be done. But there’s a sort of cultural dynamic, especially when you’re among friends and family, that people let their guard down. So I think it would be safest—unless you really know your whole family to be really vigilant about this ...

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Wells: This is the thing ... there is a wide variation in how people interpret “being safe and masking.” Everyone may say they’re being safe and masking, because they’re being more safe and wearing masks more often than they did before the pandemic. But it doesn’t mean they’re 100 percent careful. So the answer to the question is yes, it is a big, giant mistake, right?

Hamblin: Yeah. Because traveling, bringing people together as multigenerational families, gatherings like this ... remember there was this wedding in Maine over the summer that they’ve traced to seven deaths now among people who weren’t even at the wedding. And so even if everyone in your family were ready to become seriously ill and possibly die, it’s not just about you.

So yeah, just don’t do it. But the hard thing is talking to your family about that—friends, family, whoever you might spend Thanksgiving with.

Wells: Here’s another question about that: “How do I convince my parents, who have been living very carefully to avoid the virus, that they shouldn’t travel home for Christmas to stay with the rest of my extended family? I understand it’s tough and sad to miss a family holiday, but my extended family has not been living in a similarly careful way. I’m very nervous.”

Hamblin: Yeah, I’m sure that stuff is going to happen. Part of it depends on your families. What is their thinking? If they’ve been in a Fox News bubble and think the whole thing is a hoax, that’s different than if they have made some internal calculation and think they can do it safely. But in any case, a heartfelt conversation where you’re expressing concern for them, and probably a series of conversations.

Wells: I tell you, I’ve done it with my parents: “I don’t want you to die!” Almost a quarter of all hospitals in the U.S. right now don’t have enough staffing to deal with all the patients they have right now. This isn’t really a time for gentle, hopeful prodding.

Hamblin: I think it’s a time for being evidence-based in your approach. We have a tendency to think the more forceful or emotional or angry we sound, and the more scolding we get, the more effective it’ll be. For some people, it may work. For others, it requires a kind of Socratic path.

And I think those are the kinds of conversations that are actually going to turn the tide at this point. My writing and others’ writing are probably pretty futile at this point. I don’t know what more I can do to talk to audiences of national magazines if people haven’t already gotten the picture. But there’s a lot that can be done person-to-person.

Wells: What we’re talking about is this in-between where people definitely know it’s a problem, they know what they’re supposed to do, but the strictness is just hard. It’s genuinely hard to keep up. I think a lot of people are just feeling tired right now. We’ve been doing this for six months. Can I just have one single meal with my family? But the answer is you can’t, not the way you did before.

Hamblin: Yeah. Don’t do it.

Wells: Here's another scenario. This is a tough one. A listener wants to visit her 91-year-old mother. It’s not an emergency, but her cognition is declining. If she quarantines and travels by plane wearing a mask, can she see her mother?

Hamblin: This is the one big caveat to Thanksgiving gatherings: people with terminally ill relatives. You might not see them again. Honoring people’s wishes if they want to see you and they don’t care if you infect them, and they are homebound, not seeing other people, that’s a situation where I think the right thing to do is honor their wishes and go see them. If you can do that safely. It doesn’t mean bringing your whole family together to see them simultaneously. But if it’s a one-on-one situation with a family bubble going to see an elderly relative who desperately wants to see them, that’s something that I wouldn’t categorically say we should not do.

And that’s what makes it so hard to say simply: Don’t go at all. But that’s a different situation than just having Thanksgiving in May. Postpone it and do it outside. Everything will be pretty similar then, except we can actually enjoy it.

Wells: Okay, we’ve also gotten some plane questions. If you’re going to break this recommendation because you have some extenuating circumstances and [have to] travel, how are people supposed to think about travel by plane versus car versus train?

Hamblin: Planes are not what I’m worried about. We are not seeing significant transmission on planes. Planes have good ventilation. They have good airflow and filters. People mostly wear masks. You pretty much kind of sit quietly not facing other people. You’re not having loud, boisterous conversations and you’re not eating. That’s a much safer scenario than a prolonged period of having a loud conversation, eating with a big group. It’s really about once you arrive.

Wells: So it’s not getting to Thanksgiving that is the riskiest, necessarily; it’s Thanksgiving?

Hamblin: Yeah, that’s the unfortunate thing. On other forms of travel: riding in a car with strangers is not a good situation. Taking a ride-share or a taxi to an airport is not a good situation.

Wells: A car alone or with people in your household, not a problem. Train: bad?

Hamblin: I don’t know how they’re doing trains right now, but I believe trains have ventilation systems that are similar to subways and planes and are generally pretty safe. And once again, most people on the train are sitting quietly, keeping to themselves.

Wells: But again, don’t do it.

Hamblin: People will have a need to travel occasionally, so we’re just being pragmatic, but yeah, elective travel right now is not a good idea. This is the worst of the pandemic.

Wells: So to reiterate, don’t go to Thanksgiving. Just don’t do it. Okay, one last question; this one is from Kevin Townsend, producer of the show.

Kevin Townsend: My family is spread all across the country and every holiday season is a negotiation of who’s going where when. Canceling Thanksgiving probably means shifting around Christmas. I have to call my dad right after taping. Am I canceling Christmas, too?

Hamblin: Oh gosh. You know, if people have Thanksgiving in traditional ways on anywhere near the scale that Americans normally do, it’s going to be a nightmare around Christmas. Any hope of gathering at that point will be in doubt. There will be serious travel advisories; many cities will have extreme lockdowns. We’re going to be in a much worse shape.

There’s that three- or four-week lag between spreader events like Thanksgiving and when you actually see the big uptick in hospitalizations. We’d be seeing it right around Christmas. So without regard to any particular religious holiday, which is going to be especially fraught, any negotiation about how to handle the December holidays is going to be much worse if we are overloaded from people having gotten together on Thanksgiving.

Wells: So what’s Kevin supposed to say to his dad? I think the breakup “It’s not you; it’s me” tactic works well. I’m just not ready to have a Thanksgiving ... I’m not in a place where I can really have a Thanksgiving right now.

Hamblin: If you really feel like you can’t have an honest conversation with someone, then do that. But if you see an opportunity to actually talk directly about the concerns about the virus, you can at least make other people question if it’s really smart to be getting the family together.

Wells: Yeah, if you feel uncomfortable with it, don’t push through it and go. And not just for you but for everyone, because hospitals are already overwhelmed in so many places. You don’t know if you’re even going to be able to get care in the hospitals in a couple of weeks.

Hamblin: It’s honestly a great opportunity to just take the holiday off, too. Just go with an excuse. I have to work. I need to save money. I’m not feeling well. Those are going to be ways to avoid it if you know that you have family members who just really couldn’t honestly talk to you.

Townsend: The dog ate my plane tickets.

Wells: Exactly. This is genuinely very difficult. I hope we’ve given a range of options for how to say no, but the answer is no. And I think the vaccine news is, at least for me, making this a little bit easier, because we’re not going to be locked down forever. There is an end in sight. It’s not going to be immediate, but there is an end in sight. So all the more reason to really tighten up right now.