Families struggle to keep 2nd pandemic Thanksgiving


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Jocelyn Ragusin hugs her mother, who arrived at Denver International Airport on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 from Rapid City, South Dakota. The Associated Press

(AP) — In the spring, Pauline Criel and her cousins ​​talked about reuniting for Thanksgiving at her home near Detroit after many painful months of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the virus had a different plan. Michigan is now the hot spot of the country. Hospitals there are swarming with patients and schools are scaling back personal learning. A resurgent virus has pushed the number of new infections in the US to 95,000 a day, hospitals in Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona are also under pressure, and health officials are begging unvaccinated people not to travel.

Criel’s big family party was suspended. She roasts a turkey and makes a pistachio fluff salad—an annual tradition—but just for her, her husband, and two grown boys.

“I’m going to wear my stretchy pants and eat too much — and no one will care,” she said.

Her story reflects the Thanksgiving dilemma facing families across America as the gatherings are burdened with the same political and coronavirus debates that occupy other arenas.

As they gather for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie, they’re faced with a list of questions: Can they hold big gatherings again? Can they get together at all? Should they invite unvaccinated relatives? Do they have to demand a negative test before a guest is allowed to sit at the table or a spot on the couch for an afternoon of football?

“I know it might be an exaggeration that we don’t share Thanksgiving with my cousins ​​here, but it’s better safe than sorry, right?” said Criel, a 58-year-old data manager for a finance company.

Jocelyn Ragusin, an accountant from Littleton, Colorado, is taking a different approach by prioritizing family time over COVID-19 concerns, even as rising cases and overstretched hospitals have sparked new mask mandates in the Denver area this week. Ragusin, whose husband contracted the virus and spent four days in intensive care in October 2020, said she is willing to take a certain risk to regain a sense of community.

She said about seven or eight family members would gather for the holiday and the group hadn’t discussed each other’s vaccination status in advance, in part because they already “know a little bit” who got the injections and who has already had the virus.

“Coming together is worth it. And get together and share meals and share life,” Ragusin said as she picked her mother up at the airport in Denver. “We’re just not made to live in isolation.”

The desire to bring family and friends back together for Thanksgiving was evident Wednesday in San Francisco, where the line at a grocery store stretched to the door and around the corner.

Mari Arreola lined up to buy ingredients to make tamales for a meal that will also include salsa, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy. She sees the gathering of 12 family members this year as a symbol of hope that things will get better. A year ago, she spent Thanksgiving alone with her husband, mother, and a daughter.

“We really felt disconnected, and we all lived our lives based on fear, and it looked like an apocalypse scene outside every time you left your house,” the San Francisco tech consultant said last year. “It was really scary, but now it’s different.”

Even in better times, Thanksgiving has always been a difficult occasion for Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Georgetown University, who hates the awkward and divisive conversations about politics, race, and other hot-button issues. COVID-19 has only made the holidays worse.

She and her husband hoped to hold a large family gathering for Thanksgiving at their home near Silver Spring, Maryland, but the onset of a winter surge and lingering concerns about breakthrough cases shattered those plans. She recently told her father and his family — even if they have been vaccinated — that they should be tested to prove they are virus-free or sit out Thanksgiving dinner.

With two of Brown’s three daughters, 2 and 4, unable to get vaccinated, she doesn’t want to take any chances — “because we don’t know the long-term effects of COVID on children,” she explained.

Her decision means her father, Dr. Joseph Brown, will not be coming from his home, about three hours away in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The dentist has been vaccinated but said he didn’t have time to get tested.

“It hurts me a lot. I want to see my grandchildren,” Joseph Brown said, adding, “I understand her situation. I really.”

Riva Letchinger, who has seen firsthand the ravages of the pandemic as a medical student, put her worries aside to travel from her home in New York City to Washington to resume Thanksgiving festivities with her family. Last year they skipped the meeting.

She said she was reassured that everyone there has been vaccinated and given booster shots, but she is also concerned about her own virus status, even though she is fully vaccinated.

“I have a constant fear of hurting someone in my family or getting sick because I see so many COVID patients every day,” she said.

Despite her fears, Letchinger looks forward to the annual family ritual, which includes a lavish addition of Jewish favorites — like the golumpki, or stuffed cabbage, her late Aunt Susie used to bring to Thanksgiving.

But the celebration will also have a somber undertone. The family lost two loved ones, both Holocaust survivors, last year after attacks with COVID-19.

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Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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