Governor Eric Holcomb gives COVID-19 update on Wednesday, November 18, 2020.
Jami Cooper’s family still wants to celebrate Thanksgiving together, but a week out from the holiday, the 37-year-old isn’t quite sure how they can do it safely.
Dinner has been at Cooper’s dad’s house the past few years. This year they’re considering having it in his garage or using her grandma’s sun porch. When they start to eat, they’d have her grandma sit inside.
It’s a compromise Cooper is hoping will work, but she said she’s grown more worried about a gathering as the weeks have gone on and increasing COVID-19 numbers have led to new restrictions across the state.
“Our rates are just skyrocketing,” Cooper said.
The Indiana State Department of Health on Wednesday reported 6,143 new cases of COVID-19, and all but one county had a viral spread rate high enough requiring them to place limits on gatherings.
“We’re on an exponential growth curve right now, and we do not expect this to turn around quickly,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said.
More than 268,000 Hoosiers have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, and more than 4,800 have died from it.
Some Hoosiers, including Cooper, say public health information about what to do for Thanksgiving hasn’t been clear. It’s something that frustrates them as they try to make responsible decisions about how to celebrate the holiday.
Cooper said she has experienced the loss of many loved ones over the last decade. She doesn’t want to do anything that could put her grandma at risk, but she also wants to enjoy however much time she may have left with an older family member.
“She’s like the little bit of home that I have left,” Cooper said. “I think I have a non-rational fear of her dying, but I also think, how would I feel if the last year of my life I was just stuck in my house and not able to see my family?”
‘It’s just not safe’
Tom Duszynski, director of epidemiology education at IUPUI, said the answer is clear: Hoosiers should limit their celebrations to people they live with.
“At this point, it’s just not safe to celebrate Thanksgiving with people other than in your own household,” Duszynski said.
Small gatherings are driving the increase in COVID-19 cases nationwide because people think they can let their guard down, Duszynski said.
Everyone knows it’s unsafe to gather in crowds, but in small groups it feels safer to take masks off or sit closer together. If one person is sick without knowing it, the rest of the group could be infected.
Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday joined six other governors in a bipartisan opinion piece published by the Washington Post urging Americans to stay home and call loved ones on Zoom instead of seeing them in person.
“As hard as it will be to not see them this Thanksgiving, imagine how much harder it would be if their chairs are empty next year,” the opinion said.
While the first recommendation is for people to celebrate within their household, public health bodies such as the Marion County Public Health Department or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also providing suggestions with how to minimize possible risks.
This is where the decision-making process has gotten confusing for some people, but Duszynski says these organizations need to keep realistic expectations for how people may behave.
“It’s really hard for these government agencies to say what you can do or should do in your home,” Duszynski said.
Curt Brantingham, public information coordinator with the Health & Hospital Corporation of Marion County, said people should prioritize household gatherings but keep recommendations in mind if they choose not to do so.
People who are visiting friends or family should try to limit possible exposure to COVID-19 for two weeks before Thanksgiving and be tested for the virus before the gathering, Brantingham said.
Marion County has a 25-person limit for both indoor and outdoor events, a requirement backed up by CDC Thanksgiving suggestions.
The CDC says gatherings should take place outdoors if at all possible and should not be in poorly ventilated or crowded spaces. Regardless if the event is indoors or outdoors, masks should be worn at all times when not eating or drinking.
During the governor’s COVID-19 update Wednesday, Box listed risks for different holiday activities.
Lower risk activities include household-only dinners, delivering meals to relatives without contact and online shopping. Small outdoor dinners with loved ones who live in the same community are considered moderate risk.
High risk activities include attending large indoor gatherings and going shopping in crowded stores.
“Be willing to make the hard choices now to protect the people that you love,” Box said.
An emotional time
Beth Trammell, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University East, said changing holiday traditions can lead to negative emotional reactions in a year already filled with so many hardships.
Since lockdown began in March, Americans have faced losses, disappointments and emotional fatigue, Trammell said. Now those struggles are coming to a head as the holiday season approaches.
“I think it feels big now because it feels like just another blow from 2020,” Trammell said. “It’s, ‘Here we go again, another set of experiences that we’re not going to be able to do what we want to do.’”
Trammell said people should think about what they love most about Thanksgiving and find ways to get the same emotional payoff without typical traditions.
For Trammell’s family, that means mailing gratitude cards to remind the people in their lives how much they love them and look forward to seeing them in the future.
“It may just take some creativity to achieve those things that we love about Thanksgiving,” Trammell said.
Since many people are focused on the disappointment of not having Thanksgiving, they may forget it can also be a time of stress and family drama, Trammell said. A small dinner with members of one’s household may actually take some of the pressure off the day.
For families that are getting together, Trammell recommends coming up with a plan beforehand, so everyone knows expectations about when to wear masks or how far apart to be from other family members.
Be prepared that some family members may not share the same values when it comes to COVID-19 precautions. They might be mad at the family rules, but it’s important to remember their anger will likely be temporary.
“If people are going to stay angry forever, then maybe it’s illuminating something about that relationship that you should know anyway,” Trammell said.
Ukamaka Oruche, an associate professor at the IUPUI School of Nursing who works with children experiencing emotional behavioral challenges, said families should prepare their children that holidays will be different, but there will still be some sort of celebration.
“We’ll do it in a way that keeps us safe and keeps other people safe,” Oruche said.
Oruche is choosing not to have dinner with family this year. She’s sharing her decision with her clients, hoping it can help guide their decisions and show them they don’t have to do everything the same way.
Oruche said this holiday season should be a time of rest after a difficult year. Parents who are able to should take a few days off work, and they should make sure children have a break from schoolwork when school lets out.
And families who are dealing with behavioral conditions or other issues should make plans with providers so children’s care needs are met.
“I have lowered the expectation for myself, and I’m encouraging other people to do the same,” Oruche said. “We have to extend some grace to ourselves and others.”
Finding a celebration
Gathering for Thanksgiving was never really an option for the Zwirn family.
Enid Zwirn and her husband are both retired health professionals in their 70s, and Zwirn said they have always taken COVID-19 seriously.
“There was no pause in the consideration,” Zwirn said. “We considered it and said no.”
Their children’s families live in different cities, so any travel would likely mean boarding a plane. Even the possibility of seeing their grandsons after a year apart wasn’t tempting enough to risks anyone’s health.
Zwirn said she actually enjoyed when her family celebrated Passover virtually in April. They all gathered on Zoom, and everyone read aloud from the same Haggadah, the book that tells the story of Passover, during their Seder. Zwirn liked that she could see everyone’s faces at the same time even if she couldn’t hug them.
“I have to say, in some ways it was even more connected than a big table with extensions set up,” Zwirn said.
Contact Pulliam Fellow Lydia Gerike at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @LydiaGerike.
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