Janis and Peter Hess usually host Thanksgiving at their house outside the Village of East Aurora for their two grown children, a son-in-law and two grandchildren.
Their son lives in town and will be coming for Thanksgiving. The others will not. Their daughter and son-in-law live and work in the Ithaca area. Their grandson is teaching in Ithaca. Their granddaughter, who graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in May, is still living and working near the college.
“So we all discussed it. We’ve met once on Zoom – all of us got together – and we loved it. I didn’t think I would because I’m not real techy, but it was really fun. So probably that’s what’s going to happen. We met once here while the weather was nice and we could stay outside. I’m about halfway between Oberlin and Ithaca – and everyone wore their mask and socially distanced," Janis Hess said.
“But Thanksgiving is cold weather and we would have to come inside,” she said.
Coming from different locations felt too risky. “That just seems like tempting fate too much. So reluctantly, and sadly, we have decided to confine the whole thing to Zoom for this year,” said Hess, an author who has published books under the names Janis Lane and Emma Lane.
Thanksgiving has always had its challenges. Timing the turkey. Squeezing 12 people around a table designed to seat eight. Keeping dinnertime conversations between feuding family members civil.
For weeks now, the far bigger question for many families during this pandemic has been how to even celebrate Thanksgiving, especially when many people would need to travel to be together – sometimes flying, taking public transportation or driving across state lines, from areas with higher positivity rates than New York.
Planning for Thanksgiving comes during a time when Covid-19 positivity rates are rising in Western New York. On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo imposed new statewide restrictions: Indoor and outdoor gatherings at private residences will be limited to no more than 10 people (with the only exception being for households where more than 10 people already live). And bars, restaurants and gyms, as well as any State Liquor Authority-licensed establishment, must close in-person service by 10 p.m. Restaurants are limited to curbside, food-only pickup after 10 p.m.
This came two days after he announced much of Erie County will be placed on “yellow” cluster zone restrictions, which includes permitting restaurants to stay open but not allowing more than four patrons per table.
As explained in The Buffalo News, the state's microcluster approach, in which it targets specific areas with high coronavirus rates, includes red zones for the most serious spread of the virus, orange zones for areas adjacent to red zones, and yellow zones for areas in danger of becoming red zones.
(In the most-restrictive red zone, nonessential gatherings are prohibited; nonessential businesses are closed; schools are remote-instruction only; dining is limited to takeout and delivery; and houses of worship are limited to 25% of capacity or 10 people, whichever is lower.)
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, in his follow-up news conference to the governor's announcement, said the yellow zone designation is a warning that needs to be taken seriously.
People are having conversations now, with many realizing they aren’t going to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving and other year-end holidays and celebrations the way they normally do.
Like many other traditions and activities, holiday travel will be different this year.
Not like summer
Indoor Thanksgiving celebrations are not like recent backyard gatherings, since indoor gatherings generally pose more risk than outdoor ones. Outdoors, the larger air volume disperses the virus and it’s easier to keep a physical distance of 6 feet or more, while mask-wearing is also important. Serving a Thanksgiving meal outdoors may be an option in some parts of the country, but not likely in Western New York.
Thanksgiving is also a many-hands-on-deck holiday, when multiple people of different generations pile into the kitchen to help out and, once everyone is seated, dinner guests pass turkey platters, gravy boats and side dishes from person to person around the dinner table.
For weeks now, public health experts and government leaders have warned about the risks of fall/winter indoor holiday gatherings.
At a Covid-19 update news conference Thursday, Poloncarz advised the public to limit holiday gatherings to only members of the household and not to travel, among other precautions as Thanksgiving approaches.
Cuomo last month advised people to skip the family gathering this year.
“My personal advice is the best way to say, ‘I love you,’ this Thanksgiving, the best way to say, ‘I’m thankful for you,’ is to say, ‘I love you so much, I’m so thankful for you, that I don’t want to endanger you, and I don’t want to endanger our family and I don’t want to endanger our friends. So we’ll celebrate virtually.’ But that is my personal opinion,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the CBS Evening News in October he worries people will be seeing family members from different households, gathering in an indoor setting.
“I think given the fluid and dynamic nature of what’s going on right now in the spread and the uptick of infections, I think people should be very careful and prudent about social gatherings, particularly when members of the family might be at a risk because of their age or their underlying condition,” he said.
Fauci added that his three grown daughters living in different states will not be coming home for Thanksgiving.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines for celebrating Thanksgiving, noting that the safest way this year is to celebrate with people in your household (who are consistently taking measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19) – or to plan a virtual Thanksgiving celebration. If you do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside your household, take steps to make your celebration safer.
These include the usual guidelines for masks, hand washing and social distancing but also steps such as opening windows indoors and limiting the number of people in food preparation areas.
You can find all the CDC’s tips at cdc.gov. The CDC stresses it’s also important to consider community levels of Covid-19.
“High or increasing levels of Covid-19 cases in the gathering location, as well as in the areas where attendees are coming from, increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees," according to the CDC.
WNYers making plans
Courtney Gorman, who has four brothers and two sisters all living in Western New York, recently said she will be spending Thanksgiving with just two of her brothers, a sister-in-law and a niece. She’s comfortable with the small gathering of five. All her siblings, she noted, have been following the commonly known guidelines.
“We’re being careful, and the majority of us have been working from home,” said Gorman who, in past years, has hosted 20 at her own home for Thanksgiving.
“In talking with other family members, they are having immediate family for Thanksgiving,” said Gorman, who works for Edwards in Sanborn.
Barb Reformat and her husband, Mike, have also been rethinking plans. They usually go to the home of relatives in Orchard Park for a Thanksgiving gathering, but not this year because one family member is immunocompromised. Instead, the tentative plan is for them to travel to Rochester to spend the day with their daughter's family.
“A lot of family traditions are being disrupted this year,” said Barb Reformat, president of the Interior Design Association of WNY who now meets with board members on Zoom.
She is especially sad their son, a plastic surgeon in Massachusetts, will be alone this Thanksgiving. In the past, he has gotten together with friends for a “Friendsgiving,” but out of caution that’s not happening this year, either.
“We will probably just Zoom,” she said.
It’s not just the at-home gatherings that will be different this year for many families. The YMCA Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot – a long-running Western New York tradition that last year attracted nearly 12,000 participants – is another highlight of the day that brings together serious runners, amateur runners, walkers and plenty of revelers in goofy costumes. Proceeds from the event help fund YMCA programs.
This year, because of Covid-19, the event was made into a virtual competition for registered runners, while 125 of them were randomly selected to compete in a live race. The number was chosen to honor the race's 125th anniversary.
As for Janis Hess, she is planning to stay at home to cook a full dinner for three instead of seven – including a turkey. She will freeze the leftovers.
She also plans to send cards this year.