A new poll has found that parents are weighing up the potential risks and benefits of celebrating Thanksgiving with extended family during the pandemic, and deciding that keeping up with tradition may be worth the risk.

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A new poll has found that parents are weighing up the dangers of celebrating Thanksgiving during the pandemic against the potential benefits of allowing children to see extended family.

Many parents, the results suggest, may opt to attend family gatherings despite the risks.

The report, published by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, also offers advice to parents on how to go about Thanksgiving as safely as possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), SARS-CoV-2 spreads mainly through close contact with a person who has contracted the virus.

In these situations, the virus can spread if people touch each other — for example, through a handshake or a hug.

It can also transmit when a person with a SARS-CoV-2 infection coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings.

Here, what projects the virus from a person’s respiratory tract — the main part of the human body that the virus infects — is liquid droplets, which can then be breathed in by another person.

Large droplets that carry the virus quickly fall to the ground. However, scientists believe that the virus can also transmit via very small droplets known as aerosols.

Aerosols can float in the air, potentially significantly expanding the distance over which the virus can transmit to another person.

Considering these modes of transmission, the CDC recommend that people regularly wash their hands, maintain distance between themselves and other people, and wear a face mask, particularly when indoors and in places with poor ventilation.

These measures are especially important given that scientists have found that people can become infected with the virus and show few, if any, symptoms, which significantly increases the risk of them unwittingly passing the virus on to another person.

While these measures may sometimes seem difficult to follow, more often than not, people appear to be complying with them. For example, an observational study found that over 90% of shoppers in the United States wore masks as mandated in late July and August.

However, according to the Mott Poll Report, significant holidays, such as Thanksgiving, are making extended families more willing to meet in person. This is despite an awareness that meeting in person may pose risks, particularly for older family members or those with underlying health conditions, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.

According to Sarah Clark, Mott Poll co-director, “As COVID-19 cases spike, many families are struggling with whether and how to continue their holiday traditions while balancing risks and benefits.”

“For many parents, holidays mean sharing special rituals across different generations and opportunities for children to connect with grandparents, cousins, and other relatives,” she adds.

“Our report suggests that while many children have spent less time with relatives during the pandemic, some parents may have a hard time foregoing holiday gatherings in order to reduce COVID-19 risks.”

– Sarah Clark

The poll was nationally representative of the U.S. and involved 1,443 randomly selected adults who were carers for at least one child below the age of 12. The poll was completed in August 2020.

The poll found that 61% of parents who usually meet with extended family at Thanksgiving intended to meet them in person this year.

However, the poll also revealed that parents were taking measures to account for the pandemic.

For example, only 18% of respondents who have children who normally see family at Thanksgiving said they would involve family who lived in other states. In comparison, 40% of respondents said this would normally be the case.

The majority of participants — 88% — said that if a family member had COVID-19 symptoms or had been exposed to someone with the disease, then the family member would not be invited.

Around two-thirds of respondents said they would not invite a family member who had not been following mandated safety measures, such as wearing a face mask.

The authors of the report make various suggestions on how to practice a safer Thanksgiving for those who do want to go ahead with the celebration.

The report’s authors suggest finding out to what extent children from other families have been able to socially distance and considering not inviting families where this has not been possible.

They also recommend maintaining social distance during any gatherings, spending as much time as possible outside, and discussing safety practices with children before the event.

However, they also highlight that in practice, it may be difficult to do this, and so families should seriously consider whether the benefits of holding a gathering outweigh the risks, particularly for vulnerable family members.

As Clark notes: “It may be difficult to maintain distance between children and high risk adults throughout a multiday visit or even during a lengthy dinner. Parents should be realistic about how feasible it will be to limit contact, and think carefully about whether to gather in person with high risk family members.”

As a way of maintaining traditions while keeping everyone safe, the report’s authors encourage people to think creatively about how they can reproduce significant parts of Thanksgiving at a distance.

“The key for parents is to focus on elements of the celebration that represent family traditions or that seem most important to children,” says Clark.

Parents could talk to children about what parts of Thanksgiving the children enjoy the most, and focus on reproducing aspects of these while staying at home. For example, they could use another family member’s recipe that is a favorite dish of the children.

The authors also recommend using video calls to help maintain connection.

Clark points out: “We all know that large public gatherings carry great risks of spreading COVID-19. But small and casual social gatherings where people feel most ‘safe’ are also part of what has been fueling transmission.”

“With COVID-19 cases increasing in every state, it is essential that all family members do their part to prevent further spread. That may mean celebrating the holidays a little differently this year,” she emphasizes.

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