Consider celebrating virtually with family and friends; otherwise, follow our experts' advice.

By Jillian Kramer
October 22, 2020
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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot—including the holidays. Unfortunately, according to health experts, there isn't a way to host a completely "safe" Thanksgiving dinner in the traditional sense this year. But if you're intent on hosting this holiday season, there are things you can do to mitigate any risks taken—by you and your guests—when celebrating together on November 26.

Here, experts say, is how to host a safe, socially distanced Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving table
Credit: Martyn Thompson

Consider going virtual.

The safest thing you can do is to host Thanksgiving virtually, says Dr. Amber Noon, M.D., an infectious disease specialist. That's especially true if guests are immune-compromised or would have to travel from out of town to attend, she says. "Even if grandparents are perfectly healthy, our immune systems change with age," Dr. Noon warns, explaining that our T cells—or the cells that come to our defense in the days after we've encountered a virus—are slower to react and engage as we age. "I strongly encourage hosts to 'set a seat' for your grandmother using a computer monitor and have her join the party via Zoom or Facetime," says Dr. Noon.

But a digital fête doesn't have to be drab: Anne R. Kokoskie, event design consultant at Styled by ARK, encourages you to create a stylish invitation to send to guests. Then, on the invitation, ask guests to not only RSVP but to also share a recipe that everyone could make for dinner. (As the organizer, you can send each recipe to your guests via email.) "The intention is to create a meal that is a collection of all who will not be together in person but in spirit," explains Kokoskie.

Choose your location carefully.

If you're planning an in-person dinner, Dr. Noon says you will need to pay close attention to where you host your guests. The virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread through tiny aerosol particles released from our mouths and noses, and they are "in even greater supply when we talk, laugh, and sing—all components of a traditional holiday gathering," Dr. Noon says. These droplets can linger for as long as three hours. That's why Dr. Noon encourages you to host your dinner outdoors if possible. "Because fresh air is continuously moving and can disperse infected droplets, taking the party outdoors is the safest way to enjoy the holiday this year," Dr. Noon explains, adding that, "while this may be challenging in colder climates, the added safety is worth getting creative."  

A tent, heat lamps, and blankets can keep guests comfortable even in cool weather, Kokoskie says. "There is nothing cozier than a blanket draped over a bench or chair," she adds.

Get together the right guest list.

By limiting your guests to those who live in the same community, you're keeping everyone as safe as possible, says Dr. Noon. "Once you start inviting friends and family from outside your community, the risk begins to go up—particularly if they're coming from a hot spot." Dr. Noon also recommends keeping your total guest count to 10 people are fewer, regardless of where they call home.

With fewer guests, you can afford to space people out more. "If you have the room, set up the tables to be by family to limit the number of guests [who would be] sitting with someone they don't know," says Melanie Tindell, owner and event planner of Oak + Honey Event Planning Co.

Thoroughly clean—before and after.

To be safe, Dr. Noon explains that a deeper clean is critical. High-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, bathroom countertops, toilet lids and handles, and faucets should be given extra attention. "I would also clean those same areas after your guests have left," Dr. Noon says. And if you notice guests using the bathroom often throughout the evening, then you should wipe those down periodically rather than waiting until everyone leaves, Dr. Noon suggests.

You should also ask guests to wash their hands before they come and when they enter, one at a time, she says. Then, "provide plenty of hand sanitizer on each of your tables," she recommends.

Consider serving style.

If you planned on plating all the food yourself, Dr. Noon encourages you to think again: "Consider a buffet," she says, "and ask that people serve themselves food and drink independently, one at a time." Use disposable plates, utensils, and napkins or ask guests to bring their own place settings. In addition to asking guests to get up for food one person at a time, you should also instruct everyone to wear masks while serving themselves and to sanitize their hands prior to touching any serving utensils. It might feel like a lot, but it's being done in an effort to keep everyone safe. "You may also want to consider asking them to take everything they've used home for washing because of the pandemic," she says. (You can set up a trash can for them to scrape their dishes.)

Cocktails can also be served buffet-style, Tindell says. She recommends setting up a make-it-yourself cocktail station, complete with prepped ingredients, plus disposable cups and stirrers.

Encourage anyone who doesn't feel well to stay home.

Lastly—but importantly—if any of your guests aren't feeling well, ask them to stay home. "COVID-19 is very serious, and SARS-CoV-2 is a very transmittable, deadly virus," says Dr. Noon. "Even in the eleventh hour, with a turkey in the oven, if someone falls ill, move dinner virtually."

Comments (10)

Anonymous
November 18, 2020
I think it’s a shame Anonymous took such offense at your well intentioned article which in fact, offered some simple and doable tips for people who, against strong recommendations to not gather in person, will be gathering. Her (I’m assuming), indignant and defiant attitude towards suggestions for modifying a traditional holiday dinner is EXACTLY why the virus is still raging in this country.
Anonymous
November 16, 2020
I agree with the comment from Elizabeth. We have been dealing with this situation and do not need instruction on how our family will celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving! Maryn
Anonymous
November 14, 2020
Thank you for the article. We are having a small gathering of 7. I’ve been wondering how we can keep this safe without making anyone uncomfortable. You’ve given me some great tips how to do that. This was a very relevant article for me.
Anonymous
November 12, 2020
This is a fabulous feature! Jillian Kramer, thank you for offering a variety of helpful tips via a well-researched and -written article. I appreciate the depth of detail and practicality on display here. This will be a different and difficult holiday season, but it would be a very poor hostess, indeed, who prioritizes tradition and appearances over consideration for guests’ well-being and sense of security in our present situation. This informed piece is a credit to the Martha Stewart brand, which is designed to not only inspire but also educate. Kudos!
Anonymous
November 12, 2020
Thanks for the helpful ideas. I am struggling with how to keep our family traditions and keep my family safe. You suggestions are very practical.
Anonymous
November 12, 2020
Wow I’m so disgusted that you are following this non sense propaganda , social distance holiday or social distance life in general. It’s stupid and not proved to cure or prevent anything. Shane on you Martha for participating in this nonsense
Anonymous
November 12, 2020
Wow I’m so disgusted that you are following this non sense propaganda , social distance holiday or social distance life in general. It’s stupid and not proved to cure or prevent anything. Shane on you Martha for participating in this nonsense
Anonymous
November 12, 2020
Thank you so much for finding a way to blend in our current situation with our continued hopes to have celebrations. Wishing away this pandemic won't make it go away and pretending it doesn't exist on the pages of your magazine wouldn't just be foolish, it would be dangerous. Imagine a future historian looking back at the pages of this magazine and seeing no mention of the pandemic as though none of it existed? The reality is that much of the disease's spread is now happening at small gatherings, as people grow understandably weary of the restrictions. Meanwhile our hospitals are reaching capacity and our numbers of cases and deaths are surging. Thank you for finding ways to help us be excited about the holidays while expressing the ultimate in love and gratitude by keeping our loved ones, neighbors, and even strangers away from harm!
Anonymous
November 12, 2020
Glad you let your readers know that YOU consider covid safety top priority. You are a role model to so many. Your advice that a Zoom Thanksgiving is the only risk free way is absolutely right. The other approaches are still covid risky. Even outdoors— despite the suggestions on implements, etc. it’s unlikely that every guest will be hyper-vigilant. Especially after a glass or two of holiday cheer. Indoors, no matter the setup, is a high-risk venue for entertaining. Even outdoors is risky when masks are off and people outside the pod are within 6 feet. (And the bathrooms are indoors.) Better to Zoom or even call off the celebration so covid doesn’t leave us with empty chairs at next year’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Anonymous
November 8, 2020
Hi Julie, Thank you for your article. Please understand I have been a Martha Stewart fan for many years. I have totally enjoyed her magazine, TV show and other offerings. This article on how to Host a Safe "Socially Distanced" Thanksgiving has me a bit dismayed. Also the article/video on how to shop safely for our items that will be needed in my opinion is not necessary as I shop on a regular basis for groceries. My efforts to purchase items for Thanksgiving will be the same as any other trip to the grocery store. I am disappointed that you feel your readers need to be lectured on this subject. The pandemic is in our faces everyday. I look to the Martha Stewart label to be entertaining not a lecture series on how to for the pandemic. I would have surely enjoyed an article more on hosting a traditional Thanksgiving meal. I will decide how I will celebrate the holiday. I am very informed regarding the pandemic and I believe so are most American citizens. Speaking for myself I do not plan on using disposable dinner ware nor will I be having a virtual holiday dinner. I will be hosting Thanksgiving Dinner at my home and my entire family will be seated at the table. We know what precautions to take. Please reconsider future how to's regarding the pandemic especially for Christmas. No reminders are needed. Happy Thanksgiving Elizabeth