The advice from experts has been loud, unanimous, and, in recent days, increasingly desperate: Please stay home for Thanksgiving. With the pandemic raging nationwide, even small holiday gatherings threaten to fuel exponential viral growth in the coming weeks, and hospitals around the country are already at breaking point. But travel is still legal, and millions of Americans are making the journey home; Sunday was the busiest day at airports since March. Eight months into the pandemic, many people are tired of sacrificing their own mental health and emotional wellbeing to serve a broader public-health mandate. Others feel confident that they can mitigate their own risk, but not so confident that they’re planning to broadcast their plans — instead they’re choosing to keep them secret from friends and followers. We talked to six people about how they are rationalizing their Thanksgiving plans this year.
“My mother is 76 years old and I’m worried about losing a year with her.” — Marie, 35, advertising
I know that we’re not special and that I’m not somehow more entitled to see my family. I’m not more clever or doing it in a safer way. I’ve been struggling a lot.
That said, I’m also selfish, and I’m human, and I haven’t seen my mom in a year. My sister just went through a major health crisis, and my mother wasn’t able to be there for it; that was traumatic for all of us. My mother is 76 years old and I’m worried about losing a year with her. Probably the responsible thing to do would have been to not travel around the holidays and just find another way, but we’re making the choice. My mom lives alone multiple states away from her children, and I can’t bear the thought of having gone a year without seeing her. I wanted her to have a little bit of celebration and to bring her a little bit of joy.
I live in a rural place. I don’t interact with people. We don’t have children. I cannot tell you the last time when I was in somebody’s home without a mask. We’re driving straight from our place in upstate New York to her place in the Midwest — it’s a nine-and-a-half-hour drive — bringing all of our groceries and all our food for the drive with us. Once we’re there, we’re going to stay masked indoors and not have physical contact. We’ll take masks off only to eat. We unfortunately weren’t able to get tests. There are no places in our area doing walk-ins. We tried to get an appointment through online registration three nights in a row — all the appointments were gone in two seconds. It was so frustrating.
I have one or two friends I consult with and who I use as sounding boards for what feels safe and responsible. With other people, I’ve tried to keep it vague, like, “We’re thinking about maybe going to the Midwest. We don’t know. We’ll wait and see what the numbers are.” That’s the way I kept it a little bit of a secret, but I knew we were going to go no matter what.
“Frankly, I just need a change of scenery.” — Carl, 30, business
My dad and all my siblings are based on the West Coast, so I’m going to go out there and visit them. Thanksgiving is the one time when I see my family every year. And, frankly, I just need a change of scenery.
A lot of my friends are the kind of people who are in the midst of their ‘forever plans.’ They are just supremely comfortable, and their primary concern in life is that their status quo is not disrupted. Their mentality is like: Everybody follow the rules and play along; we have planned for something and envisioned something about the way our lives will look. If the world succumbs to this virus, they fear that it’s going to get taken away from them. I don’t have that. I’m kind of in a transient state in my life where I’m living in a 500-square-foot apartment. This is not a permanent place; I have no permanent furniture. I’m not supremely comfortable here, and I have all these aspects of my life that are spread out in different places. But I can’t really bounce the idea of traveling off of my friends. I feel like I have to kind of steer clear of them because they’re like, This is the person who’s going to spread COVID. But when I talk to my family in California, they are like, “Are you allowed to purchase a plane ticket and get on the plane?” And I’m like, “Yeah,” and they say, “Okay, the rules allow it. What else matters?”
I kind of want to be selfish for a second. I’m just going nuts here. I don’t even know what I want or what could possibly make this better. I know there’s the moral hazard of it all, but at this point, I’m much more concerned about my mental health.
Am I going to get a test? To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it. I probably will. At this point, I know I’m bordering coming off as a COVID denier, but I’m really not. I’m just desensitized to the conversation around it.
“I asked his mom not to post pictures on Facebook.” — Dana, 34, lawyer
My partner’s family is in New Jersey. His mom is very social and loves having parties and gatherings, so no one’s going to tell her not to have Thanksgiving. I said, “Okay, if you have some precautions in place and we stay outside by the fire pit, we’ll go.” We are semi-quarantining this week. I have been going to work, but nobody gets near me here. I have an office, and I drive. Plus, we aren’t seeing any friends this weekend. My partner’s parents are a lot younger than mine, so it’s lower risk. And it’s less far to travel — it feels like part of the same area. But I asked his mom not to post pictures on Facebook, especially considering we told my family we can’t come because of COVID. I’m not trying to rub it in their face.
We were going to get tested, but my friend said the line has been hours and hours long because everyone is trying to do it now, so I don’t think we’re actually going to get tested. Plus, the test just says you don’t have it in that moment; you could always get it the next day.
“They just said, ‘We don’t care. We miss you. We want to see you.’” — Claire, 22, student
I’m a student in Springfield, Missouri, but I also work part time. My university is switching to all online after Thanksgiving, so most of my classmates aren’t coming back after the break. But I have to come back and go to work.
I’m traveling about 500 miles to visit my family in Chicago. Illinois has more quarantine restrictions and lockdown rules than the state that I’m in, so I’m not really going to try and like go on a vacation or anything. I’m just going to visit my family. I’m getting a free test from my school before I go.
I’m socially distancing from my family as much as possible while still visiting them, like staying in a hotel room instead of staying at their house. No one in my household is high risk at all, and everyone has been quarantining and wearing masks and following all the guidelines. I do worry that I could be bringing risk to them. But when I brought that up with my parents, they just said, “We don’t care. We miss you. We want to see you.”
I haven’t told my office at all, because I’m worried that, when I come back, they’ll want me to quarantine for two weeks. As a part-time employee, I won’t be eligible for any compensation at all during that two-week period, and that’s just not something I can handle financially.
Now, whenever I do anything social, I try to avoid putting it on social media. That is definitely something that I feel self-conscious about. I know other people have strong opinions.
“We’re doing a smaller family gathering now just because people are more fearful.” — Laurel, 31, fashion industry
We live in New York, and the plan is to go to Thanksgiving with my fiancé’s family in Connecticut. The CEO of my company basically said, “If you are leaving New York State for Thanksgiving, then you are required to quarantine for 14 days after you come back.” I just thought that was so crazy. Like, how serious is that? It just seems like such an extreme reaction, especially because we hardly go into the office anymore.
I think I’m just gonna make a judgment call and sort of go about my way and be good and cautious. At the end of the day, the only thing I can do for certain before I return to the office is get a COVID test, which I think is going to be required of everyone anyways, right?
Our plan is to do an outdoor Thanksgiving under a tent with heat lamps that his family ordered. We’ll just drive in for the day and then come back to the city.
I haven’t been posting anything on social media during the fall. If it’s a friend’s birthday and we’re outdoor dining, I’ll do my traditional “this is so fun!” birthday posts because it’s totally fine and obviously legal to do, but I’ve been very cautious about what I’m doing because I don’t want people to pass judgment on my behavior. I have been taking it very seriously. My partner just came back from California, and we did the four-day quarantine on his return. He got a COVID test before coming home and got a rapid test four days later. We’re probably going to do two tests before we leave to see his family this weekend.
The CDC telling people not to travel and all the messaging around it has definitely changed our perspective. If I had to fly, I don’t think I would. We’re doing a smaller family gathering now just because people are more fearful.
“The messaging around Thanksgiving has been so ramped up to scare me.” — Kelsey, 29, teacher
I live in Brooklyn, and I’m going to Long Island to see my family. I’ve gone home quite a bit throughout quarantine because my parents live close and I live alone. But when I was on the phone with my mom earlier this weekend, I told her, “I’ve been feeling a lot more nervous because the messaging around Thanksgiving has been so ramped up to scare me.” I was just like, “I can’t come home. I have to stay put.” And she was just like, “You were literally home a week and a half ago. You haven’t done anything since then except go to the park.” That’s not to say that going home isn’t always risky — obviously it always is. But in previous months, I’ve hunkered down; I’ve gotten regular tests to make sure that I’m fine; and then, after a few days, I’ve gone home to see my parents. In theory, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be any different.
The public messaging seems reasonable in one respect, because you don’t want people to fly across the country to see their families. My entire family, which is nine people, has been podding together throughout the entire coronavirus pandemic, and I am the exception. And I’ve been exercising as much care as possible throughout the whole thing.
As of right now, they’re coming on Wednesday to come get me. I basically told them if something changes between now and then, and if I don’t feel comfortable coming home for whatever reason, I’m not going to. I got a test on Friday that was negative, and I’m doing another test today. I do feel like my situation is a little bit different, because I’ve been seeing my family with some regularity. So the stakes are a little lower for me. If I miss Thanksgiving with my parents, it’s not the end of the world, because I know I’m probably going to see them in a couple weeks anyway.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity, and names have been changed.