Pandemic Thanksgiving: How to Reduce the Risk


If you’re going to travel to see family, how should you rank the modes of transport?

Purely from the standpoint of coronavirus transmission (not carbon emissions, cost, time, or other safety concerns), here’s a very rough hierarchy from safest to riskiest:

  1. Walking or biking
  2. Driving with people inside your bubble
  3. Riding the subway
  4. Flying
  5. Driving in a car with people outside your bubble
  6. Taking a submarine

Does the risk of air travel change during Thanksgiving if tons of people fly?

Yes. Up until now, flying itself has proved to be low risk: The ventilation is good, and people wear masks and are mostly quiet. Airports with large crowds are likely more hazardous than time spent on the plane, and that risk will increase as more people travel. Still, the act of flying in a plane is less of an issue than close, prolonged contact in a home where people are eating and socializing. Traveling vigilantly, only to arrive at someone’s home and act as though there is no pandemic is a serious misallocation of anxiety.

I’m not feeling well, but I think it’s just a cold, because I tested negative for the virus. Should I go to an outdoor gathering?

No. A negative test isn’t enough to reassure you that you don’t have the virus, especially if you have symptoms. The most common coronavirus test, a PCR test, can confirm only that you do have the virus, but it can’t ensure that you definitely don’t.

If you’re not feeling sick, is it morally defensible to get a coronavirus test in order to see family, given testing shortages?

In many cases, no. Sick people need those tests, and so do essential workers. They don’t need to be waiting in a three-hour-long line between shifts to get tested. That said, there are situations in which people may have an urgent need to see one another this winter. The most obvious example is when someone is terminally ill or unable to care for themselves, or they are especially isolated and depressed. If you’re fortunate to not fall in any of those categories, and seeing family can wait until the spring or summer, do that. Leave the tests for those who need them.

Should my family do temperature checks at the door?

No. This is an even less effective mode of screening than PCR tests. By the time a fever develops—if it does at all—you’ve likely been contagious for days. So temperature checks give a false sense of security. The fact that someone doesn’t have a fever isn’t meaningful information that should change how they behave, or how anyone else behaves around them.

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

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