I am finally worried. When the first wave of COVID-19 washed over Connecticut, the Northwest Corner seemed like an oasis from the storm. We paid heed, wore masks, carried hand sanitizer and avoided large congregations but were not unduly obsessed about contact with others. When restrictions relaxed, we were among the first to venture out for alfresco dining and to entertain on the patio.
That was then and this is now. With new confirmed infection rates of more than 150,000 a day and with the COVID-19 related death toll expected to top 400,000 by January 1st—nearly double the number who died in the first eight months of the pandemic—I am now more concerned about the danger.
But the increased need for caution comes at a particularly difficult time for most people. Just as we are gearing up for the most emotionally connected season of the year, starting with Thanksgiving and ending with New Years, we are being told to keep back—all the way back. Many of us have been living virtual lives for a while now, attending meetings, listening to lectures, concerts and the like, online. But holiday gatherings are atmospheric—the smells, the colors, the accoutrements as much a part of the experience as the company.
So, what to do? Well, for Bunny McGuire of Canaan, who comes from a large Italian-Irish family, the numbers at her table will be fewer but the spirit will be the same. “We all split up. We usually have about 15 people but this year I will have no more than five here,” she said. “But, we’re going to be very positive about it. I’ll do the whole thing—turkey, stuffing, gravy, pies … We’ll probably do some phone calling after the dinner, although, at this point, it will probably be texting.”
She laughed merrily when advised that the Center for Disease Control is advising guests to bring their own dishes and flatware. “Well, guess what,” she said, “it’s all about using your best dishes and a dishwasher will do wonders.”
She said she would not hand out paper plates and say, “don’t get it mixed up with anyone else’s.” But that is pretty much the drift of online advice these days. State of Connecticut guidelines go even further, suggesting virtual meals with no in-person contact or, if you truly feel impelled to share dishes, that you deliver them to family and neighbors in a way that does not involve personal interaction, such as leaving them on a porch. Yccch!
For those receiving guests at their homes, it is suggested that the meal be moved outdoors (brrrr!) or that, at least, windows be opened to increase circulation (keep the gatherings short to avoid frostbite). Limit the number of guests to those with whom you have regular contact and discuss expectations with your guests in the days before the celebration. Consider asking guests to avoid contact with people outside of their households for 14 days before the gathering to lower risks.
Many cooks will welcome this advice: keep traffic in the kitchen to a minimum but another suggestion seems positively anti-social: have guests bring their own food and drink. And for those of us who enjoy bringing out the best linen, grandma’s bridal china and elegant stemware, the thought of “single-use options” such as plastic utensils and single-serving packets of salad dressing and condiments is as chilling as mashed potatoes left on the porch.
Anne Longley of Salisbury views this all with a very pragmatic air. “I’m sorry if you have had Thanksgiving together forever,” she said briskly. “You just have to make decisions. The thought of a catered dinner is thrilling to me because I don’t want to cook.”
Longley lost a family member to COVID in April and she worries about exposing her mother or other family members. “It’s fraught with issues,” she said of Thanksgiving. “In our family, no one is coming from Virginia and my sister won’t be coming from the Cape. If Mom, my sister and I can have Thanksgiving together, socially distanced, that would be fine. It’s common sense.”
Connecticut has put a cap on private gatherings, both inside and outside, to 10. Wearing a mask, even in your own home while visiting with others (except when eating, obviously), is strongly advised. Ask guests to stay home if they are feeling unwell and invite only local attendees (this can be a perfect opportunity to distance yourself from tedious relatives without giving offense) and hold activities outdoors if possible (touch football rather than vegging in front of the television, anyone?).
Perhaps this is not the year for Grandma’s china. The state recommends that if the holiday gathering is indoors, friends and family should be spread out. Instead of everyone eating at one large dining room table consider smaller tables in multiple rooms.
Thanksgiving of 2020 may bring the beginning of the end of the crisis. With promising vaccines emerging from test laboratories, 2021 may put an end to the winter of our discontent—and for that we can truly give Thanksgiving!