The Atlantic Daily: The Pandemic Holiday Rules Have Changed

Brine the turkey. Swab your nose? Here’s how to prepare for a safe Thanksgiving 2021.

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Turkey with vaccine shots as feathers
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In 2020, public-health experts’ message to Americans was simple: Cancel Thanksgiving. This year, COVID vaccines afford us more options for a safe Turkey Day.

But not all celebrants come to the table equally at risk; kids 5 to 11, for example, won’t be able to reach full vaccination in time because their shots just got authorized, and younger children are still waiting. And in many areas of the country, at-home coronavirus tests remain scarce and pricey.

I talked with my colleague Katherine J. Wu about how to think about risk ahead of the holiday.

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with the basics. Is it safe to gather for Thanksgiving dinner this year?

The better way to think about it is to ask, What is the safest way to gather for Thanksgiving this year? At this point in the pandemic, we have a whole list of behaviors and tools that we can use to lower our risk. Nothing will ever get us to zero risk if we are gathering. But a combination of all those things can help get us pretty close.

We are in such a better position to celebrate Thanksgiving this year compared with last year. We have a huge—not enough, but a huge—percentage of the population vaccinated now, so that means it is totally possible to have a Thanksgiving where everyone there is fully vaccinated. And that feels reasonably safe to me. [But you have to consider:] Who is most at risk? How can we best accommodate them?

Should I take a test beforehand?

It is probably a good idea. But tests are powerful tools with limitations, just like everything else. If you test positive, that can stop you from going to a dinner infected. If you test negative, that probably increases the likelihood that you’re not going to pose a threat to other people. But tests can’t predict the future. It's possible that the virus could still be inside you, but not at the detectable level yet.

If you’ve been traveling or going to work and not masking in the office, you can probably assume that you might have had a recent exposure, even if it wasn’t a really serious one. There’s maybe good reason to test yourself and your family a couple times the week of Thanksgiving, especially if you’re about to go to a gathering where there might be unvaccinated people or vaccinated people who remain at high risk—like if they’re older or immunocompromised—or if the gathering is going to be totally indoors and maskless, and there’s going to be a lot of people. Things like that can all factor into the test decision-making process.

What if tests aren’t available in my area? Are there other measures I can take to be safe?

Testing is still not as available as it really should be at this point. I don’t think lacking access to a test has to be a complete deal breaker. This again goes back to the layered approach: If you don’t have tests, do you think you can build a safe enough Thanksgiving with vaccines, masks, distancing, or outdoor dining? Is everyone vaccinated?

Should case numbers or hospitalization rates play a role?

If you are going to be holding a Thanksgiving gathering in a very high transmission region where the hospitals are slammed and people are still getting very sick—not just infected, but very sick—consider what position that puts you in. If someone, God forbid, were to get really sick in your group, would the local health system have the capacity to take care of them?

Also, if there’s a ton of transmission in your region, what does that mean for the riskiness of the activities you’re engaging in in the days leading up to it?

What about quarantining?

Quarantines are really tough for a lot of people to manage. If people are going to work, it means they have to stay home from work. If you're traveling, you can't then lock yourself in a room for two weeks. Thanksgiving will be over by that point.

Have other questions in advance of the holiday that you’d like Katie to answer? Send them in.

The news in three sentences:

(1) Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand to testify in his own defense today during his homicide trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (2) The Bureau of Labor Statistics released another not-so-good inflation report. (3) The United States and China announced a surprise climate pact.

Today’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Take a photo trip to the ​​Faroe Islands with this captivating gallery.

A break from the news:

The singularity is here.


Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.