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Columbia prepares for a pandemic Thanksgiving

Distant Gatherings

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Funny pumpkin with face protective mask on pastel blue background with copy space.

COLUMBIA — Gabrielle Watson, a Columbia chef, fondly recalled how her mother and older sister do all the cooking on Thanksgiving, despite her own culinary background.

Celebrating at their mother’s home, they’ll have a glass of wine and collaborate on a 1,000-piece puzzle as football plays on the TV.

It’s a vintage American Thanksgiving scene, one shared by many, and Watson, like people in Columbia and elsewhere, is staring down a fall in which the safety of such family events is questionable at best.

Controversy isn't unknown to Thanksgiving. The holiday has been under something of a scrutinizing magnifying glass in recent years as the origins, meaning and politics of it have come into question, but it persists. Perhaps no other holiday outside of Christmas represents such a unified sense of family.

And what better year for a gathering centered around libation and unrelenting food?

Written upon at painstaking length by now, 2020 has fatigued the collective consciousness. This year has been filled with political rage, police brutality, devastating wildfires across the globe, the deaths of beloved icons like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, of course, the debilitating, exhausting and unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic.

Following coronavirus safety protocols will curtail the typically sprawling nature of many Thanksgiving festivities. Indeed, so many people traveling and gathering in large numbers at their family homes seems apt for a recipe for viral disaster.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have as much to say on an info page on its website:

“Thanksgiving is a time when many families travel long distances to celebrate together. Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. If you must travel, be informed of the risks involved.”

It goes on to list various risk levels for activities. Among the least dangerous is a small dinner with household members only and dropping off food for family and neighbors without contact. Among the most dangerous is “attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household.”

For some, like Watson, these risks are affecting long-standing plans.

“‘It’s the one time of year we try to get together, other than the Fourth,” said Watson, the event chef for Columbia’s Honey River Catering and its sister food event company F2T Productions. “(It’s) not happening this year because my parents are getting older.”

Instead of risking her parents’ health, she is hoping to host an oyster roast in her large back yard for a small group of friends the day after Thanksgiving. Watson acknowledged it sounds like she is hosting a “coronavirus party,” but said she feels that her home can seat the people with reasonable social distancing measures.

Hopefully, Watson explained, her oyster roast will sate a desire for community in a safe environment.

“I’m getting a good response. I’m telling everybody, ‘If you’re comfortable with this that’s fine, we want people to come,’” she said. “I feel like my house is a safe place to be.”

It’s difficult to fully project what to expect this holiday season. Travel company Travelocity polled over 1,000 people and found varying results.

“60 percent of Americans report they won’t be traveling to see friends and family this year and of those, nearly one-in-three said they won’t celebrate the holidays,” a release announcing the survey read.

The company noted, however, that many are still considering travelling in some fashion, mostly within 250 miles of their home. In most years, travel is part of the Thanksgiving deal.

Greg Brown, owner of Greenleaf Farms in the Columbia area, typically joins his family for “huge Thanksgivings” that in the past have reached up to 70 people and have recently trended towards 30 to 40 people.

“It’s really an excuse for the family to get together,” he said.

The family has yet to make plans this year, but Brown expected the number of attendees to drop and, after some thought, questioned whether the family will gather this year at all due to pre-existing health conditions among some family members, including himself.

Brown is a transplant recipient and mentioned that his mother and brother are also in riskier categories for the virus.

“We’re the three most susceptible to it, I am concerned about that,” he said.

Some are getting inventive with their attempts to gather. Vernon Fowler, who works alongside Watson at Honey River Catering as its event coordinator, and his family have rented a large event space for roughly 20 to 30 family members to gather.

The decision comes months after COVID-19 killed his grandfather and uncle, and the family wanted to take the pressure of hosting off older family members.

While the gathering will retain the spirit of the holiday, he reasoned there will still be tension between the desire to be close, literally and figuratively, to family and doing what's responsible as the virus persists.

“I can’t hug my family. Just due to COVID there’s things you can’t do anymore,” Fowler explained. “We want to be there and be really close and touch with your family and fellowship with them, but in today’s society you can’t do that safely and not consciously.”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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