By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Masked servers will deliver plates laden with turkey and fixings to a dozen relatives separated into small pods in Kathleen Williamson’s backyard in Maryland, part of her scheme to dish up family togetherness at Thanksgiving.
With so many holiday traditions upended by COVID-19, families are concocting ways to hold reunions with loved ones while keeping a safe distance to guard against coronavirus spread.
Mounting infections have reached new highs across the country, with 41 states reporting historic increases in COVID-19 cases in November, 20 with record death tolls and 26 with record hospitalizations, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.
In recent weeks, governors of at least 18 states have warned against holiday get-togethers and imposed rules ranging from mask mandates to tighter restrictions on indoor gatherings while awaiting a widely available, effective vaccine that medical experts say is months away.
“I don’t want to be done in by Thanksgiving,” Williamson said in an interview. “I don’t want to meet my maker in our lovely hospital.”
Williamson alternates annual holiday hosting with another set of grandparents. And 2020 is her year, when a pandemic has already killed more than 250,000 in the United States and more than 1.3 million worldwide.
Americans like Williamson are hungry to spend the Nov. 26 holiday with loved ones some have not seen since last Thanksgiving or since the pandemic locked down much of the nation in March.
Near Philadelphia, one extended family said on Facebook that after an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner those traveling from out of town will sleep in rented recreational vehicles rather than in the home’s guest beds.
In New Jersey, another woman said online that her extended family was arranging an outdoor pot luck “so if it all goes to Hell, people can still meet to grab food and bring home.”
Williamson, a retired foreign service officer whose posts included Central America, said, “I’m approaching this as though I’m planning a conference, and there will be kids and dogs there.”
Her overseas career featured assignments such as arranging last-minute parties for visiting U.S. congressmen and other officials.
“That was training for this,” Williamson said.
She sent ground rules for the traditional harvest feast in an email to relatives such as “PLASTIC CUPS will be used, marked with your name so you don’t pick someone else’s.”
Her holiday table is typically set with her finest Waterford Crystal glasses and china plates, but this year the decor features paper plates to avoid washing up.
She is allowing only one other family member in the kitchen with her, the visiting grandfather, whose retirement from his medical practice has allowed him to train in culinary arts.
“We will put the food on the kitchen table and each pod will select a ‘food getter.’ WITH MASK ON,” she wrote.
She said she would not allow gaiter masks whose effectiveness has been disputed or those with valves that fail to stop virus spread to be worn by family members, who include four senior citizens, five other adults and three pre-teens, accompanied by four dogs.
“Promise me you’ll take your temperature before you arrive,” she wrote to them in the email, adding that she had bought a temperature gun.
Her dos and don’ts included everything from the locations of hand sanitizers to proper bathroom use in the era of COVID-19 – “kids, put the toilet seat down before flushing.”
She also tried to enlist volunteers to help with the myriad logistics required to ensure a safe, comfortable outdoor celebration.
“Someone in charge of the fire pit? That means keeping it burning and yelling at dogs that get too close to it,” Williamson wrote.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)