In short, yes—here are a few expert-approved ways to navigate this delicate conversation.

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As the holidays draw near, get-togethers with friends and family ramp up. However, before we begin plotting out our menus and curating our tabletop décor, it's important to remember that ensuring guest health and safety is still a key part of entertaining this season. COVID-19 and its evolving variants "can spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, as well as airborne droplets," Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, MD, the regional medical director at One Medical West Coast, says. "Any region where there is widespread COVID transmission, there is risk of COVID infection when people gather in a group. The most important way to reduce your risk is to get the COVID vaccine and ensure others who are gathering are also vaccinated. If you have any questions about the vaccine, reach out to your primary care provider—we are happy to chat about it."

With the ongoing state of the pandemic in mind, it's unsurprising that many hosts are considering planning vaccinated-only celebrations. That begs the question: What's the etiquette around barring unvaccinated guests from holiday gatherings, and how should you approach inviting guests to this type of event? Ahead, experts share how to respectfully, but firmly communicate your wishes that everyone in attendance on Turkey Day is fully vaccinated.

Communicate your desire to have a vaccinated-only guest list.

Simply put, Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and the founder of The Protocol School of Texas, says yes, you can require that people are vaccinated before coming to your Thanksgiving gathering. "You can let them know that due to continued health concerns, you will be limiting your guest list to only those who have received a vaccination," says Gottsman, noting that this is a particularly valid decision to make if you have children under the age of 12 or immunocompromised loved ones within your orbit. Prioritize care and compassion by calling your tentative guests to communicate these conditions; avoid written messages (like texts) or conveying the information via an invitation.

Time difficult conversations right, and approach them with care.

According to Gottsman, it's best to tackle this conversation long before the holiday, so guests aren't blindsided (and can make alternate plans if need be). When getting ready to speak with your tentative Thanksgiving guests, the first step is to tread gently and avoid picking a fight. "Include statements like, 'This may be a tricky conversation. I'm going to work hard to maintain a 'high road' stance. It would mean the world to me if you'd work at this, as well,' or 'We may radically disagree about the topic I'm broaching. I will do everything in my power to be honest and to hear you in your honesty. Even if that's all we can do—we'll be doing this well,'" Gottsman suggests.

If you know that your positions on the vaccine differ, notes Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist and the author of Restart: Designing a Healthy Post-Pandemic Life ($25, amazon.com), and you aren't able to dialogue successfully, don't continue the conversation. If you need to quickly disengage, state, "I'm feeling really surprised right now, and that makes this a bad time for us to discuss this," or "I feel so strongly about this topic, that it's always a bit disorienting when someone I'm really connected to and I disagree. I'm in that space right now," suggests Dodgen-Magee. In that vein, it's important to be prepared—expect emotions to run high. "Recognize that these are difficult moments to work through," she shares. "Give yourself and the other person a bit of time and space. If either of you feel reactive and unable to work through the feelings in a way that is respectful of self or other, step away from the conversation and find a way to get grounded."

thanksgiving turkey on table
Credit: Maren Caruso / Getty Images

Set boundaries.

Dodgen-Magee says to be direct and clear about your boundaries regarding the event. "Don't dance around the topic and don't be harsh," she says. "Make statements and ask questions as succinctly and clearly as possible with phrases like, 'I am not comfortable eating indoors with people unless all parties (with the exception of children) are vaccinated. Does this sync with or conflict with your thoughts on the topic?,' or 'I am okay with doing a Thanksgiving together if everyone is vaccinated, masked, and socially distanced.'" Feel free to speak to the Delta variant, she adds. Try, "With the new variants at play, I feel a real need for everyone to consent to the arrangements we make for Thanksgiving" or "I am vaccinated and my family is vaccinated. We are not comfortable eating indoors with people unless they, too, are vaccinated. Have you and your family chosen to take the vaccine?"

Commit to your stance.

"Don't negotiate when feelings are stirred," says Dodgen-Magee. "If you find that someone isn't vaccinated and you are only comfortable inviting vaccinated folks, don't try to work out a compromise in the moment." Instead, be firm and respond accordingly: "It looks like we may need to forego being together this Thanksgiving since we're on different pages. I'm sad about that, and that's really all I can say right now." 

Be transparent with each and every one of your guests.

If you are open to it, you can require that your guests show proof of a negative COVID-19 test—in lieu of a vaccination card—taken one day ahead of the event, says Gottsman. "Admittedly, this is not a conversation we would have had pre-COVID, but the virus has taken its toll and people have lost their lives," she shares. "This is not the time to let your guard down." And while "vaccination can be a hot topic," Gottsman says, transparency—which allows your invited guests to make the right decisions for their own families—is critical, especially if you take the negative test (as opposed to full vaccination) route. "If you're gathering and will have a large number of people, your guests should know whether or not there will be some unvaccinated individuals," she says.

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