Has COVID-19 changed Thanksgiving for you? In 2022, new strains of the virus continue to emerge, and so many people may remain concerned about potential infections as the country enters another Thanksgiving season. During Thanksgiving 2020, COVID-19 vaccines were not widely available to the U.S. population, so official guidance remained to mask and remain distanced from people who were not a part of your immediate household. By Thanksgiving 2021, vaccines were available, but the first large-scale variant (Delta) had caused a second wave of infections. In this article we talk about how COVID-19 has changed Thankgiving celebrations over the last two years.
We (the Cooperation in the Apocalypse team, an interdisciplinary group of scientists across universities) surveyed a group of 915 Americans about the impacts of the pandemic over the course of two years, from September 2020 through August 2022. In both 2020 (28 Nov) and 2021 (16 Dec), we asked questions about the Thanksgiving holiday – how many people did you celebrate with, did you make modifications because of the pandemic, and were you concerned about potentially spreading COVID-19 through this celebration?
Overall, we found that people began to return to more typical celebrations of Thanksgiving in 2021. In 2020, 35% of the participants surveyed said that they decided to avoid celebrating Thanksgiving because of COVID-19 related concerns. In 2021, only 14% of participants said the same. Not only were there fewer cancellations in 2021, but gatherings tended to be larger. The average number of people respondents celebrated with grew from 3 in 2020 to 5 in 2021. However, there was a large range in both years (0-42 people), suggesting that not all people restricted the size of their celebration in either year.
On the surface, these differences suggest that people were less concerned with the pandemic as the years went on. However, between 2020 and 2021, there was no significant difference in the ratings participants gave about being worried about the possibility of becoming infected with COVID-19 or being worried that they could infect others with COVID-19 during their Thanksgiving celebrations. Part of this may stem from the fact that in both years, participants were relatively confident that their guests were not COVID-positive. When answering the question “If you celebrated Thanksgiving with people outside of your household, how likely do you think it is that at least one person there was COVID positive?” on a scale from 1 (Not at all likely) to 7 (Extremely likely), 58% in 2020 and 60% in 2021 gave a response of 1.
What might be the reasons why the majority of people are so sure they are not welcoming COVID-positive individuals into their house for the holiday? In 2020, some of the assurance that there was no risk seems to stem from the fact that people primarily celebrated Thanksgiving with only people in their immediate household. In 2020, typically there were no people celebrating outside of the household, whereas in 2021, there was an average of 2 people visiting from outside for the holiday. In addition, some people chose to take precautions such as sitting outside and staying far apart physically or videochatting with family instead of visiting in-person. By 2021, less people mentioned these sorts of precautions, but indicated feeling safe because the people they were celebrating with were all vaccinated.
What could this mean for 2022? Some people reported in 2021 that they felt like they “missed out” on Thanksgiving in 2020 and that they felt like gathering with others was a tradition, which motivated them to celebrate with more people or outside visitors that year. When asked about their motivation to celebrate Thanksgiving the way they did in 2021, one participant even reported that “it is beyond time to return to normal life”. This year, in 2022, people may increasingly have this sentiment, especially as new boosters that protect against specific variants of the COVID-19 vaccine are introduced. If this is the case, then perhaps the pandemic did not change the typical Thanksgiving celebration permanently, and people will return again to their traditions in 2022.
As of the writing of this article, the CDC’s Travel Guidance only recommends not traveling at all to people who are sick or who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are thus recommended to isolate. For those who may have been exposed or who are done with their recommended isolation, the CDC advises wearing a high-quality mask when indoors with others while traveling or on public transportation. This means masks in airports, on trains, etc. will continue to be recommended, and the agency suggests them for all people regardless of their exposure or vaccination status. Also for others, testing before and after travel is recommended. Communication with those you’re celebrating with will continue to be key so that people can be relatively sure again, as in the past two years, that they are not going to contract COVID-19 over the holiday.