IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Covid makes Thanksgiving travel risky. Staying home shouldn't earn you a guilt trip.

Don't make us present medical journals or risk models to make our case for not attending. If we're fearful about our health, that should be enough to accept our choice.
Illustration of woman inside bubble having holiday ephemera prodding her bubble.
Our only option is to respect the choices of the people we love, and confirm that love by doing so.Colleen Tighe / for NBC News

When I tell my friends that my adult daughter won’t be joining us for Thanksgiving dinner, they usually ask: “Where does she live?”

“Ten miles away,” is my curt reply. I must confess that knowing my only child lives so close to me and hasn’t visited since March often makes me angry. My better angels tell me to shush: “She’s worried about infecting you since you and her father are at the age where you’re far more vulnerable if exposed to Covid-19.”

This comes down to one value: genuine concern for the physical and emotional well-being of the person you presumably love.

I hope and pray that my better self has mostly prevailed in my conversations with her. But to the extent I’ve made it more difficult for her to stick to her decision — by arguing that a masked visit is safe, by telling her how much I miss her, by whatever other rationales I’ve thrown at her — I’ve been dead wrong.

She declines to visit because she loves us and doesn’t want to endanger us. I may discount the risk, since she’s not the kind of woman who hangs out in bars and declines to social distance. Indeed, she’s been very careful. But risk is not the only factor here — it’s also an issue of respecting her decision, which shouldn’t be second-guessed by anyone, including me.

Covid-19 is spreading across most of the country at an alarming pace these days, and holiday gatherings, beginning with Thanksgiving, are a prime source of possible infection, according to health experts and government officials. Nevertheless, some 38 percent of Americans say they plan on a big celebration with 10 or more people over the holidays. That means a lot of us who want to be careful will be struggling with invitations to dinners we are wary of attending.

No one can lay on guilt better than close friends and family members. So the season synonymous with spending time with loved ones will now be replete with arguments, recriminations and manipulation. It takes a lot of stamina to stick to one’s guns and not give in. Indeed, The New York Times recently consulted two clinical psychologists, a family therapist and an expert on negotiation about the appropriate strategies to navigate this new third rail of relationships. (How did declining a dinner invitation become as fraught as trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or figure out a decent conclusion to Brexit?)

But we shouldn’t have to present medical journals or risk models to make our case for not attending. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day of love and celebration. If I am anxious and fearful about participating, that should be enough of a reason to accept my decision to decline.

Granted, not all families play the guilt card. But if they extend an invitation to a relative or friend they know is at higher risk, isn’t that itself an inducement to attend? Wouldn’t the kinder gesture be to let them know they’re welcome, but to actually discourage them from showing up, particularly if it involves plane travel? Loved ones may not want to admit it, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. As the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put it, “A Zoom Thanksgiving is a lot better than an ICU Christmas.”

This comes down to one value: genuine concern for the physical and emotional well-being of the person you presumably love.

Consider my friend, a cancer survivor past 70 who has faced a barrage of family engagements this year. She’s taken several plane trips to attend birthday parties and at least one baby shower, though her relatives don’t wear masks or social distance when they’re together. She told me that she goes to these events mainly because her family is so happy to see her.

Young persons who have an underlying medical condition can be in an even worse bind. They may look healthy and vigorous, and want to keep their health issues private. The pressure can be even greater if grandchildren are involved. But declining an invitation should not require anything more than a polite refusal — “I just don’t feel comfortable visiting this year” — not the submission of medical records.

I think I (partly) understand why this is happening. The pandemic has made every event this year more fraught, and thus more precious. It’s easy, during this time of peril and isolation, to idealize our real-world experience of family feasts and cling to a Hallmark card image of what Thanksgiving is all about, even if holding on so dearly to an image of the past makes it impossible to cope with the demands of the present.

There’s also simple denial at play. When reality is inconvenient, it can seem easier to ignore it. People don't want to believe that relatives might die if exposed; ironically, they force them to participate in dangerous rituals to strengthen their conviction of invincibility. But wishing for normalcy — even the fractious meals of yesteryear — doesn’t make it so. I would love to dine on my daughter’s flourless chocolate cake and sweet potato pie and superb mashed potatoes. She is the far better cook in the family, and traditionally kicks me out of the kitchen on Thanksgiving. But I’ll just have to get over it.

And yet we cannot escape the fact that this Thanksgiving will not be like any other, no matter what we do, and that can make our desire to somehow “normalize” it so intense. Fear can drive our passion for togetherness this year, in fact, because someplace in our collective psyches, we worry that we may not be around for the holidays next year. So many people have died, and this virus seems so fickle. It can leave some people with mild or no symptoms, hospitalize others, cause persistent medical problems for “long-haulers” and kill others very quickly.

We desperately want to get in that last good time, that final hug, perhaps the last opportunity for reconciliation. The problem is, nothing we do can make us absolutely safe or predict our future. Our only option is to respect the choices of the people we love, and confirm that love by doing so.