“Do we want to sit with people at Thanksgiving, and weeks later attend their funeral?” The head of the Illinois Department of Public Health did not mince words when, back in October, she advised people not to eat turkey together this Thursday.
Ngozi Ezike was among the first to sound the alarm, but since then the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against travelling for the holiday. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert and coronavirus guru, has said he will not see his daughters for Thanksgiving, while Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she will not host her 92-year-old mother as usual.
The Covid-19 numbers in Illinois are among the worst in the US: on Monday, the state’s daily average of cases per 100,000 population for the past seven days was 93: three times the figure for the locked-down UK. The Illinois governor suggested people stay at home and keep celebrations to one household, but he has stopped short of ordering them to do so.
A grim tool from Georgia Institute of Technology shows me that I’d be taking a nearly 50-50 chance of encountering at least one Covid-infected person if I chose to share candied yams and traditional Midwestern jello salad this week with 15 people in Cook County, where I live.
So that’s why many Americans are lamenting a holiday that mostly won’t happen. Normally, it’s a day for gratitude; this year, it’s more about grief. The families of the more than 250,000 Americans who have died from Covid-19 are in mourning. Others are bereaved due to pandemic-induced suicides, drug overdoses and other deaths of loneliness.
Even those who have so far lost no one are grieving for other losses. I’ve caught myself in self-pity for the family birthdays we could not celebrate this year: my own 65th, my eldest daughter’s 21st, my father’s upcoming 90th. But we will be trying out new traditions: we will keep to our own small household bubble for an Asian-American themed holiday this year — Peking Turkey, anyone?
But Katie Wrobel, a video editor in the northern suburbs of Chicago, has renovated her 100-year-old detached garage, adding French doors for ventilation and an outdoor patio with a firepit. Thanksgiving will be outside this year. She says her ex-husband did not want to give coronavirus a seat at the table at his house, with their two college-aged kids back from campus.
“So we will have his family and my family come and we will have dinner outside — or in the garage with the French doors and the garage door partially open for ventilation”, she says. “It’s my Midwestern version of a California indoor-outdoor space.” But this is Chicago, famed for its frigid winter winds: “People will just bring coats”, she says. “Think of what we have adjusted to already.”
Nick Lawson, her builder, says pandemic renovations are “blowing up”, and he has work already booked through the spring. One problem is that materials are in short supply and prices are high: the cost of cedar for decking has tripled, he says.
Nielsen, the market research firm, says the Thanksgiving menu has also been affected: sales of smaller, eight-pound birds are so far up 44 per cent on last year, as seven in 10 Americans say they will keep dinner to fewer than six people. Many may be cooking at home for the first time, so Chicago area resident Jobi Cates is planning a “Thanksgiving for dummies” video session to teach first-time cooks the basics. “People are really attached to the comfort of a certain smell and a certain taste on Thanksgiving and I’m afraid they’ll be sad if they can’t have that,” he says.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT's live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
But there are silver linings, too. Jenny LeFlore, a mother from Chicago, says she is, frankly, relieved not to be spending Thanksgiving the “normal” way, which for her meant “three different stops and spending hours in the car”.
And Ms Wrobel predicts good things could come of the changes forced upon us. She plans to offer her new pandemic patio to single friends who want to date without getting too close. “Sometimes you do things for one reason and a world of possibility opens up because of it,” she says.
Maybe that’s the lesson of this Thanksgiving: new traditions born in grief that we can nurture in gratitude. I may be basting turkeys with soy sauce for a long time to come.
Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published