In Brief

Home for Thanksgiving: How Holidays May Present a Public Health Threat

COVID-19 cases are surging across the United States, forcing Americans to weigh the risks of gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday. How have other countries handled holidays amid the pandemic?

The coronavirus is spreading at alarming rates in the United States and globally. Experts worry that—despite the growing U.S. case count—people will choose to travel and come together for the fall and winter holidays, and that cold weather will bring people indoors, severely raising the risk of infection. Health experts advise a range of measures to limit gatherings and reduce exposure. Other major holidays celebrated around the globe amid the pandemic can offer lessons.

How high are case levels in the United States?

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The country has seen record levels of COVID-19 infections in recent days, averaging around 125,000 new cases daily in the first half of November. Unlike early in the pandemic, the number of cases has been rising in nearly every state in this latest wave.

What are health officials advising about Thanksgiving?

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Health experts note that the pandemic has been an isolating and stressful time for many, and that reconnecting with friends and family during the holidays can be important, but ask that people modify their plans to reduce health risks. They point to multiple ways the virus can spread, including by inhaling small particles or touching surfaces that have the virus on them.

 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance on holiday gatherings, urging specific precautions around Thanksgiving. The agency warns that small household gatherings have been “an important contributor” to the spread of the coronavirus. It says the lowest-risk options are gathering virtually for the holiday or only with members of one’s household. For people who risk larger gatherings, the CDC advice includes:

  • limiting the number of guests to allow people from different households to remain at least six feet apart;
  • avoiding direct contact, including handshakes and hugs, with non-household guests;
  • holding outdoor rather than indoor gatherings;
  • increasing ventilation;
  • requiring guests to wear face masks; and,
  • washing hands often.
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The CDC also says its guidance is meant to supplement, not replace, local guidelines and restrictions. For example, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has issued an advisory urging residents to cancel any plans for large dinner gatherings on Thanksgiving, and governors across the Northeast have prohibited gatherings of more than ten people. Some colleges and universities are asking students to stay on campus, or requiring them to test negative for the virus before leaving. Yet, Democratic and Republican officials remain deeply divided over pandemic safety measures. At the same time, the White House has been largely silent on the U.S. spike, and has promoted public gatherings in defiance of state restrictions.

How have other holidays been celebrated globally amid the pandemic?

Durga Puja and Diwali. Taking place in late October and mid-November, respectively, Durga Puja and Diwali are annual festivals celebrated around the world, mainly by Hindus. In India, where more than a billion people observe the holidays, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to continue to wear masks and physically distance. Cases are already hitting record highs in the capital of New Delhi amid the festival season, and experts warned that public celebrations could lead to an increase in cases countrywide. But state officials resisted further restrictions, seeing holiday commerce at shops and street markets as an opportunity for financial relief

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An overhead view of charity workers in Toronto setting up takeout-style service for Thanksgiving.
A charity in Toronto sets up takeout-style service for Thanksgiving. Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Canadian Thanksgiving. Occuring on October 12 this year, Thanksgiving in Canada is being blamed for a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide: new infections reached a record high of over six thousand on November 16. The country’s chief public health officer said holiday celebrations and other relaxed social gatherings have been an “important driver” of the outbreak, and provincial governments could impose strict measures over the Christmas holiday if Canadians do not reduce their gatherings now. 

Eid al-Adha. An estimated 1.8 billion people celebrate the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, observed this year on July 30–31. Restrictions across countries varied, but in many places, the holiday looked quite different from years prior: Lebanon and Oman imposed nationwide lockdowns during the holiday due to an earlier rise in infections; Saudi Arabia allowed people to pray inside mosques after monthslong closures, but asked them to comply with safety measures such as reading the Quran on one’s phone rather than using shared copies and performing wudu (washing of the body) at home; Pakistan banned the slaughter of animals—a tradition during Eid al-Adha—in open spaces. Many Muslim-majority countries did not see spikes in cases as feared. 

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