Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings
Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings. But what are the rules?
COVID 2021

COVID-19 Thanksgiving, Round 2: How to prepare, when to mask up ... and what about those unvaxed relatives?

As we enter the second Thanksgiving in the midst of a global pandemic, many American families and friends are coming together to celebrate the holiday for the first time since 2019. How can they stay safe — and what precautions can they take to ensure they need to focus on only the meal? We asked Dr. David Ghilarducci.

I have never really been a huge fan of Thanksgiving, but this year marks something different: It will be the first time I have celebrated the late November holiday with my extended family since 2016.

This time last year, many Americans — my parents and myself included — hunkered down at home with only immediate relatives for the Thanksgiving meal. But with vaccination more widespread and now boosters out in the world, more people are planning on getting on the road again to join in some joyous and delicious celebrations.

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Nearly two years into a global pandemic, we still have to assess: How should we prepare for our second COVID-19 Thanksgiving?

Lookout reached out to Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer David Ghilarducci for ideas on how to have the best Turkey Day possible.

What are the rules again?


For those sticking around the area, Ghilarducci reminds Santa Cruzans that as of this past Sunday, there is a countywide mask mandate in place. The mandate includes a requirement to mask up indoors in both private and public settings when with non-household members.

“It’s still important to wear a mask, especially when mixing with people outside your normal household,” he said. “But it’s been a long pandemic and people are going to want to get together, and there are ways to minimize or reduce the risk.”

Ghilarducci said the best way to do just that is:

  1. Ensure everyone is vaccinated in advance.
  2. Get a booster if you’re able to (though if you got one today it wouldn’t be fully effective by the holiday).
  3. Wear a mask indoors when not eating or drinking.

Recommendations for reducing the risk


The best way to lessen the potential risk is to celebrate the holiday outdoors.

While this isn’t feasible for all Americans, Ghilarducci said he was incredibly grateful that many Californians like himself could set up the big meal outdoors, and he encourages locals to head to their backyard, a local park or even the beach.

“It makes a huge difference in terms of potential spread,” he said.

If the Great Outdoors doesn’t work for your family, not to worry — there are a few other methods to reduce risk. Ghilarducci said keeping windows and doors open for added ventilation is helpful. It could also be beneficial to have just one person plating the food instead of multiple people enjoying a buffet-style meal.

About those unvaccinated relatives


This might be the first time many loved ones are seeing each other in some time — and that could include unvaccinated family members. While not everyone might agree about vaccinations, Ghilarducci said it is likely that “no one wants to [be at a family meal] if they’re making other people uncomfortable.”

“Sometimes Thanksgiving conversations can be tough ... I might say to everyone coming in, ‘We appreciate if everyone is vaccinated; if not, we may need to change our plans, or ask that you wear a mask,’” he said.

Additionally, if you’re entering a family meal without knowing everyone’s vaccination status, Ghilarducci said it could “signal a conversation” to wear a mask, and help to “frame mask-wearing in the sense that it’s for everyone, as a kindness.”

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Is sharing food OK now?


One great reminder for this year’s gathering: You don’t have to eat only the food you made.

Whether you’re celebrating a buffet-style or potluck-style meal, Ghilarducci said there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through sharing food, except maybe via sharing utensils. Hence, if you want to be completely safe, have a designated server for the meal (but save a big piece of pie for them).

To have an extra layer of protection, of course, Ghilarducci said the basic recommendation is to wash your hands.

“Even when I’m washing a turkey, I wash my hands at least 20 times because I don’t like the feeling on my fingers,” he said. “Singing Happy Birthday to yourself is a good way to do it — you don’t have to do it out loud, though.”

Those who ‘forget’ to wear a mask


Santa Cruz County has a mask mandate in place, but locals could be hosting loved ones from other parts of California or other parts of the country. As such, Ghilarducci said the best way to handle relatives who “forgot” their mask is to wear one yourself.

“Model the behavior through yourself that you would like others to follow,” he said.

Some families could also consider buying surgical masks and having them available for family members in the entryway before they enter the home.

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COVID test, boosters on Thanksgiving?


Ghilarducci said there are options for people to get either a COVID test or a vaccine on the holiday itself, but it won’t necessarily help you in advance of the Thursday gathering.

“Even if you receive a negative result from a COVID-19 test, you could be infected,” he said. “If you’re feeling any symptoms, stay away or stay outside.”

Ghilarducci further emphasized that the virus could be so pernicious that many individuals could have almost no symptoms, which is part of the reason there’s been such an increase in COVID-19 cases more recently. As of Tuesday, he said there’s been a 43% increase in active known COVID-19 cases in Santa Cruz County over the past two weeks.

“I believe we’ve already started seeing our winter surge,” he said. “I hope with vaccinations, they will keep the peak of the curve lower.”