A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

What Thanksgiving Could Look Like This Year

Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, Turkey Day gatherings—and even the birds themselves—may be a little smaller in 2020.

thanksgiving 2020 covid coronavirus pandemic
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Giving thanks in 2020

Luckily, Thanksgiving is all about spending time at home with loved ones, so in some ways, it’s the perfect COVID-friendly holiday. But, it’s also historically one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, and is followed by hoards of shoppers lining up for Black Friday sales—not to mention packed parades, college kids returning home (and possibly bringing their germs with them), and relatives crowding in to stay overnight. According to one recent survey, nearly 70 percent of Americans expect to celebrate Thanksgiving a bit differently this year, but we’ll manage to adapt Turkey Day to the pandemic just as we’ve done with other 2020 holidays. So settle in for a cozy, intimate Thanksgiving gathering with your closest family and friends—as etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says, it’ll be like “making cranberry sauce out of cranberries”!

Clifford the Big Red Dog in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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No traditional parades or events

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will go on—but not as usual. Instead of crowds gathering along the 2.5-mile parade route in New York City, the televised-only production will focus on the area right in front of Macy’s on 34th Street. The balloons, floats, and even Santa will still be there, but the number of participants will be scaled back. Most of us watch the parade on TV anyway, so besides not seeing crowds of people, it will be very similar.

Local parades may likely be canceled as social distancing would be hard to ensure, but if they do happen, should you attend? “No to parades—they’re outdoors but tend to be crowded,” says Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. Dr. Troisi also says to only attend sporting events if masks and social distancing are maintained; many turkey trots and races are being done virtually.

Black Friday Online Shopping
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Online Black Friday shopping

Cyber Monday could turn into Cyber Weekend (or Cyber Entire Holiday Season) as customers avoid crowded Black Friday malls this year. “I expect a lot fewer in-store shoppers Thanksgiving weekend, and while online sales should be very strong overall, I’d stress that won’t be confined to traditional dates like Cyber Monday and Black Friday,” says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “We’re projecting 71 percent of holiday shoppers will make most of their purchases online, up from 51 percent last year.” The pandemic is only part of this, he says, as online shopping for convenience had already been trending up. Online shoppers can expect good deals throughout the whole season.

Although Rossman says holiday sales are predicted to be about the same as last year, this “would actually be a win for retailers given how depressed spending has been throughout 2020.” But the online trend could be difficult for mom-and-pop-shops, he says. As for what people are buying, “I think technology and electronics will remain hot sellers, while other categories such as clothing and experiential gifts—restaurants, trips, event tickets—are weaker,” he says.

Fathers preparing thanksgiving turkey
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Smaller, at-home gatherings

Forget the 20-pound turkey: People will likely forego the huge event in favor of smaller gatherings this year. “You have to assess the situation for your particular circumstances—it will depend on the rate of COVID-19 in your community, your risk factors, as well as the risk factors of those you’ll be in contact with,” Dr. Troisi says. But best practice is to “avoid large gatherings, celebrate just with immediate family or those who are in your pod. Quarantine those who will be getting together for two weeks, if possible, before the get-together.” The turkey industry and grocery stores are even preparing a greater number of smaller birds, and more parts such as turkey breasts, for the likelihood of smaller gatherings. As for going out to eat Thanksgiving dinner, “home is safer than restaurants, but as long as restaurants are taking appropriate precautions—distancing, limiting the number in the room, masks when not eating—the risk should be low,” Dr. Troisi says. You may need these 10 tips for buying the perfect turkey this Thanksgiving.

Table festively decorated for autumn holidays
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More precautions for indoor gatherings

Those having people to their homes will need additional precautions to make it safer. “A formal sit-down dinner with non-household members may not be the best choice this year, but some separation while eating with a face mask off and increased ventilation in the room would lessen the risk,” says Diane Kantaros, MD, chief quality officer at Nuvance Health. “Open some windows in the house—even opening a window a small amount will help increase air circulation in the house.” Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas, also suggests several smaller tables where people in the same household can sit together to eat. Follow this menu to host the best Thanksgiving ever.

Coronavirus Covid-19 old woman applies a sanitizer on her hands, prevention, quarantine
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Better hygiene on the table—and in the bathroom

Appetizers where everyone is grabbing from the same bowl, as well as family-style serving from the same dish, will be out this year. “Avoid serving buffet-style—the repeated use of serving utensils by multiple people should be avoided,” Dr. Kantaros says. Instead, have one designated server. In addition, don’t have dips and universal serving bowls for salads and chips, Gottsman says. “Make individual salads in mason jars,” she says. “Create individual cellophane bags with colorful and festive utensils and paper plates for each guest.”

Another place to go disposable is the bathroom. “Avoid towels that people must use and reuse—everything should be disposable,” Gottsman says. “Keep your powder room pristine—offer paper towels and plenty of disinfectant soap.” Make sure you have a garbage can for trash and check the bathroom often to ensure it’s clean. Have extra hand sanitizer and masks to offer your guests as well, Gottsman says.

Friends toasting with wine at outdoor table
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Outdoor meals

Given the risks of eating close together inside with masks off, though, those hosting in warmer climates will likely be considering eating al fresco. “We’re lucky in Houston because weather is favorable to meeting outside, so have a picnic with physical distancing instead of a sit-down holiday dinner, for example,” Dr. Troisi says. For those in cooler climes, Gottsman suggests warming units, a fire pit, or outdoor fireplace, along with clean, new blankets for people to use and take home as a gift. Keep the same food precautions as indoors, though: “Use the grill and serve the food from the grill rather than universal serving platters,” she suggests. But although outdoor activity is safer than indoor activity, some parts of the country will simply be too cold to accommodate this for the holidays, Dr. Kantaros says.

Teenage girl argues with mother at home
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Family arguments

There’s nothing new about family arguments at Thanksgiving, except this year they might be COVID-related. So how can you deal with that relative who insists on coming, or how should you respond if your parents are hurt you’re not coming this year? “Hold your ground—it’s not necessary to apologize for your strong feelings of keeping yourself and family healthy,” Gottsman says. But sweeten the news, literally, if need be: “If everyone loves your praline pecans, they are easy to pack and ship with a note saying, ‘We will look forward to enjoying the day together next year,'” Gottsman says.

Also, beware if your guest insists they’re fine to come because they tested negative. “A negative test does not mean let your guard down completely,” Dr. Kantaros says. “It’s important to keep in mind that if your invited guests are tested for COVID-19 before coming for the holidays, many people can actively transmit the disease before the first test turns positive and before the first symptom.”

Cheerful family raising hands while enjoying road trip in electric car
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Less air travel

It’s likely that fewer people will be flying to visit family this Thanksgiving weekend, with one report citing just 25 percent of bookings as last year for American Airlines and United Airlines. However, there might be a last-minute surge as people put off deciding what to do until a couple of weeks before the holiday. But driving is generally less risky for COVID transmission, Dr. Kantaros says. “Travel by car, if possible—if you need to fly, try to book your flight at a day or time that isn’t as crowded,” Dr. Troisi says. “Look for an airline where middle seats are not filled. Wear your mask and a face shield over it. No eating or drinking on the flight, and don’t use the bathroom unless you’re desperate. Wipe down surfaces like trays with disinfection wipes and use hand sanitizer.” Before booking, consider the transmission rate in the area you’re visiting—even if you quarantine before and after your trip, you could still get exposed during travel time, she says.

Open suitcase with clothing
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Fewer hotel stays and vacation rentals

As with air travel, bookings for accommodations are down right now. “In the United States, there has been a 16 percent decrease in reservation volume for Thanksgiving bookings compared to this same time last year,” says Amiad Soto, co-founder and CEO of Guesty. But, “as we approach Thanksgiving, I predict we will see an influx of reservations two weeks out from the holiday—especially for those heading to drive-to destinations one to four hours away from where they live.” This was the case for summer travel as well, he says. As for safety in hotels, both doctors we spoke to agreed as long as you take precautions like wearing masks and social distancing in common areas like the lobby, the risk should be low. Soto points out, though, that vacation rentals have lower guest turnover, fewer face-to-face interactions, and fewer “high touch” surfaces than hotels.

Grandfather and Car Driver Grandson Waving Goodbye Through Windshield
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But less staying overnight with family, too

People may also be hesitant to stay overnight in relatives’ homes, which could actually lead to more hotel stays among those traveling. In terms of the safety of staying over versus in a hotel, “you’re going to be exposed to family either way, so I don’t see much of a difference between the risk,” Dr. Troisi says. But Dr. Kantaros says it may also depend on who else is in the house. “In some situations, staying in a hotel might be lower risk than staying in a crowded house with relatives who have all recently traveled,” she says. In addition, “the individual risk of the people in the home should be considered when making this decision. Staying with the elderly or immuno-suppressed may be putting them at increased risk.” Ultimately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that staying home for Thanksgiving is the best way to protect yourself and others.

Man Taking Group Photo Of Family At BBQ
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Starting new family traditions

For those who’ve decided not to travel or have guests, making a smaller gathering special will still be important. Gottsman suggests preparing the traditional foods you normally do, dressing up to lift the festive mood, taking pictures (this is sure to be a historic year to document), and sharing special memories. “Even when you live with the same people around your table, there are things you can express that they want to hear,” she says. “Sit around the Thanksgiving table and reminisce about impactful, specific gestures that directly influenced your life and how you are grateful for them. Everyone wants to hear something good about themselves and how they made a difference.” You can also try these funny Thanksgiving quotes to share around the table.

Mother and daughter embracing behind car on college campus
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College kids returning home for the year

Even among those only celebrating with their immediate family, what should be done about returning college kids who may be spending the rest of the calendar year at home? “Many colleges are ending the semester at Thanksgiving so students are not traveling back to school after the holidays, which means they can quarantine if there’s a high-risk member of the household,” Dr. Troisi says. “Otherwise, maintain safe distances, wash hands, get a virus test four or five days after arriving home—but understand rapid tests have a fairly high false-negative rate, so a PCR test [the kind that takes longer to get results] would be more accurate.” Or, she says, get tested twice with two negative results from rapid tests before relaxing restrictions.

Young woman bringing homemade bread to neighbor's door
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Remembering neighbors

Unfortunately, the pandemic may mean that some people whose relatives aren’t coming or who can’t have visitors due to health conditions may be alone for the holidays. This may inspire a return to a greater sense of local community if people check in with a phone call to their neighbors, especially those who are elderly. You can also think about a socially distanced porch visit or contactless drop-off of food. “Some people are more open to home-baked items than others—consider a friendly delivery of a store-bought item if you are not sure,” Gottsman says. “Some neighbors would be thrilled with your famous pie while others would prefer store-bought. It’s the thought that counts!” Try making the most popular Thanksgiving pie in your state.

Family attending online video meeting and having dinner together at home
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Virtual dinners

For those who can’t be with us, we’ll be using that old COVID stand-by, virtual visits via the computer or phone. People can even share a virtual Thanksgiving dinner. “You may want to eat together or have dessert together,” Gottsman says. You can also mail treats, then enjoy them at the same time. “Sit someplace where they can see you and there is good lighting,” Gottsman says. “Be prepared to engage with lively conversation and fun stories, and make it a point to make happy memories to look back on. There is no right or wrong—the value is spending time with your family virtually.” Whether in person or over Zoom, this Thanksgiving is sure to be one to remember! Next, check out more ways we already know the holidays will look different.


  • Numerator: “The Most Detailed Insights Into An Unprecedented Holiday Season”
  • Diane Gottsman, modern manners and etiquette expert
  • Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston
  • Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com
  • CreditCards.com: “Poll: Most Americans will do holiday shopping from home”
  • Diane Kantaros, MD, chief quality officer at Nuvance Health
  • OAG: “US Majors Heading for a Thanksgiving Roasting”
  • Amiad Soto, co-founder and CEO of Guesty

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Parents Magazine online, among others. Her work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.