Knox County Health Department director Martha Buchanan shares tips on how to have safe family gatherings amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.


Thanksgiving is almost here and with it the start of a monthlong season full of tough decisions about get-togethers with friends and family. 

This isn’t a normal holiday and we know in our hearts that being alone with just our immediate household is the safest way to celebrate. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed approximately 240,000 lives, sickened 10.3 million people nationwide and shows no sign of slowing down. Nationwide, statewide and locally the pandemic has ramped up over recent weeks.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate the holidays. With some planning, health experts have suggestions for minimizing your risk while sharing joy, togetherness and thankfulness — it’s more important than ever in a crisis.

Here is what you need to know to make decisions about how to best safely navigate the upcoming holiday.

Keep staying safe in your daily life 

If you have been trying to stay safe during the pandemic through physical distancing, wearing a mask in public, handwashing, regular surface cleaning and staying home when you’re sick, public health officials commend you — and urge you to keep it up.

All of those things are vital as a record-breaking surge continues in East Tennessee. They’re even more crucial as you get ready to visit with family.  

The Centers for Disease Control says that masks are the best protection for both you and your family from COVID-19 whenever you’re outside your household. 

“As we head into the holiday season, it is more important than ever to practice the five core actions,” said Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan. “These actions will help you and your loved ones stay safe.”

Quarantine before the holidays 

If you’re planning on attending or hosting an in-person holiday party with guests, everyone should try to quarantine for at least 14 days beforehand if possible. 

“I think a big thing would be … trying to quarantine, to limit risks as people come from different places,” said Dr. Kevin Smith, president of the Tennessee Medical Association. He explained that by quarantining as much as possible before a gathering, healthy people could avoid catching COVID-19 and transmitting it during family parties.

HOSPITAL LEADERS: What you can do right now to slow the pandemic

If quarantine isn’t possible because of your job or other responsibilities, Smith emphasized wearing a mask pretty much all the time in public prior to the gathering. 

Plan small, low-risk celebrations

The simplest way to have a safe Thanksgiving is to celebrate with a small group of people, limited to your own household. That kind of celebration looks mostly normal with a traditional meal and doesn’t introduce new people and the risks they carry.

“If you’re just having Thanksgiving with your household, with the people you live with all the time, that’s going to look pretty normal,” Buchanan said. “Obviously increasing the number of people in the gathering and going outside your household, that’s more risky.”

The coronavirus is airborne, carried by respiratory droplets and aerosols. As more people speak, breathe or eat in confined spaces, the more droplets build up. The more droplets carrying COVID-19 build up, the more likely they are to infect someone.

Not everyone who carries COVID-19 is necessarily aware that they are positive. People can be infectious without symptoms, or even presymptomatic.

This creates an obvious problem for Thanksgiving. Large groups of people from multiple households congregating in confined spaces for long periods of time increase the risk that someone might transmit the virus to someone else unwittingly.

“I think one of our biggest risks is congregate dining,” said Dr. Mark Browne, chief medical officer of Covenant Health. “So large groups of people around the Thanksgiving table I think puts us all at risk.”

To reduce the risk of transmission at Thanksgiving, dinner health experts recommend sharply limiting the number of people you invite over, spacing guests out over multiple tables or rooms during the feast or, weather permitting, moving things outside. They also recommend wearing masks while not eating to reduce the number of potential COVID-19 droplets in the air. 

Get a COVID-19 test

Experts we spoke to emphasized that prevention was the best policy. Testing before a holiday makes sense, but it’s no guarantee of safety. 

“A test only tells you about whether you have it at the time you took the test, not whether you caught in the days to come,” Smith said. “I think it really gets back to masks and social distancing to prevent spread.”

‘OUR NEIGHBORS, OUR FAMILY MEMBERS’: Small-town hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths

Be creative and flexible

If you’re limiting Thanksgiving dinner to a small group you can still share the holiday spirit by getting a little creative. Buchanan suggests delivering food to friends and loved ones instead of hosting a gathering in a home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests hosting virtual dinners or sharing recipes with friends and family. 

Instead of a formal dinner, a family could gather to a visit to an orchard, a pumpkin patch or attend a small outdoor event together. 

“Anything that allows you to be 6 feet apart where you have good air circulation is a safe activity,” Buchanan said. “The key is not to go, ‘Oh I can’t do anything for the holiday.’ It is to say, ‘How can I during the holiday keep myself and my family members safe?’”

Be honest and intentional about your needs and plans

Key to all these holiday considerations is planning openly and honestly with your friends, family and loved ones. Everyone has different health needs and tolerances for risk and it’s important to acknowledge them ahead of any festivities. Conversations like these might be hard but they are worth having so that everyone is on the same page. 

“There’s not some foolproof script that’s going to make that (conversation) go easily and smoothly,” said Dr. Keilan Rickard, director of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga counseling center. “But it’s all about being honest with what you’re feeling, about what you need and what you cannot tolerate.” 

Rickard stressed that being honest about your needs, wants and fears helps set important boundaries with relatives. He said that if your family isn’t willing or able to accommodate your needs then you should consider something other than in-person celebrations this year.

“If people aren’t willing to abide by that (boundary) that’s absolutely fine, that’s their choice.” he said, explaining that you could set up virtual ways to include others while staying safe. “We’ll all pass around my phone or do a FaceTime call for folks who aren’t able to make it.”

The government response to COVID-19 is a politically charged topic, surrounded by conspiracy and misinformation but experts recommend avoiding engaging with this head on. Make it about the virus, not politics. 

“Just say ‘No no no we’re talking about the virus here. We’re not going to ask you who you voted for,” recommends Dr. Bill Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “The virus doesn’t care about that.”

Be gracious and forgiving

Rickard also brought up that between the pandemic and the election emotions were running high. The US Census Bureau reported that a third of Americans were experiencing anxiety or depression. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 53% of adults surveyed reported negative mental health effects from the pandemic. 

Because of this mental health experts recommend that people be especially forgiving and gracious of their family this year. 

“Give each other grace and really reflect on the meaning of Thanksgiving, that you are grateful for what you have and the people in your life,” Buchanan said.

Quick Thanksgiving safety tips to share with your family

  • Keep gatherings small and intimate, limited to your own household if possible. 
  • Larger gatherings or gatherings of multiple households should happen outside and for shorter periods than normal
  • Everyone should wear a mask while visiting another house when not eating. 
  • Quarantine if possible for 14 days before travelling or visiting another household.
  • Consider shopping online instead of going to a store during the holiday rush.
  • Avoid crowded events, public and private. 
  • COVID-19 can’t transmit over the phone or internet, digital interactions are encouraged. 
  • Talk things through with family and friends before celebrating. 
  • Be aware of medical needs for yourself and in your family circle. 
  • Give yourself permission to stay home or leave unsafe situations. 
  • Be forgiving, understanding and gracious with people in your life. 

Read or Share this story: