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COVID-19 means Thanksgiving alone for many Americans

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2 days ago Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
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For Jennifer Broderick, the decision to spend Thanksgiving alone was a surprisingly simple one.

Her mother is a cardiology nurse, her sister works at a nursing home and Broderick has been teaching in-person classes as an assistant biology professor at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Since all of them interact with people outside their immediate families each day, exposing them to COVID-19, Broderick said she will stay home.

a group of people sitting at a park: Wearing a face mask to prevent to spread of COVID-19, volunteer Scot Wingo grabs bags of food to distribute during a North Texas Food Bank drive thru event on Oct. 22, 2020, in Dallas. © LM Otero, AP Wearing a face mask to prevent to spread of COVID-19, volunteer Scot Wingo grabs bags of food to distribute during a North Texas Food Bank drive thru event on Oct. 22, 2020, in Dallas.

She may cook a turkey "alongside" her family via Zoom, or she's thinking about making an unconventional meal on this unconventional holiday: tacos. 

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"Because I care about my family and friends, this is a thing I can do to protect them," said Broderick, 29. "If we could do a good job quarantining now, that could contribute to getting numbers lower, so I can at least think about (seeing them during) Christmas."

The coronavirus pandemic is spreading out of control: More than 256,000 people have died in the USA, schools are closed and the nation set records of infections multiple times over the past week. That has prompted people to rethink their Thanksgiving plans, many choosing to eat a meal known for community and family alone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises Americans to keep Thursday's dinner small – ideally with only people living in their household – and to avoid traveling for the holiday. A bipartisan group of governors and mayors urged people to follow that advice, arguing that it's more important to stay safe and wait for the vaccines in production to be finalized. 

Those recommendations make this holiday season a complicated one as families negotiate over social distancing ground rules, how to share meals and whether the whole thing should be called off. Roughly one-third of Americans live in single-person households, according to census data. 

Taylor Edwards, 28, a digital marketing coordinator in Chicago, was unsure whether she'd eat alone Thursday. Her parents are divorced and live in different neighborhoods of the city. Edwards has mostly stayed home and kept away from her parents to abide by the guidelines, but that's a difficult decision on such a time-honored holiday.

Each day that passes makes that decision even harder as COVID-19 cases spread in her Midwestern state, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a new round of restrictions starting Friday after Illinois' average daily COVID-19 deaths shot up from 37 a day in October to 84 a day in November, according to data from the COVID Tracking ProjectFor now, Edwards plans on briefly visiting her parents but has a backup plan in place: She'll stay home, cook herself a ramen pasta dish she found online and open a bottle of red wine.

The lack of turkey, she said, is intentional.

"I'm trying to take the emotional ties off of this period of time," she said. "I'm definitely not set. I just know so many people still moving ahead with Thanksgiving with 10 or 12 people, and I'm like, 'God, you have kids from college campuses coming in, you have elderly family members.'

"This time next year, we could be in a much better place, and I want all my family members to be there."

In Asheville, North Carolina, Lindsay Ann Spurgeon will be separated this Thanksgiving from another kind of family: her Alcoholics Anonymous group.

The 41-year-old has been sober for a little more than a year, but the pandemic has made that especially grueling since most AA meetings were canceled. One of her groups tried hosting a meeting outside, but it was difficult because of all the cars roaring past. She's done meetings via Zoom, but Spurgeon said that doesn't provide nearly the same kind of support as the in-person meetings.

The holiday season is one of the most dangerous for people in recovery, given all the social gatherings that encourage drinking, the cold weather driving people inside and the emotions associated with the holidays. That's why her group held a daylong meeting last year on Thanksgiving. Spurgeon is saddened it can't happen again in 2020.

"Those meetings are life or death," Spurgeon said. "For me, it's mainly the social aspect of it, to have that mutual reassurance that we're all OK, that we're all doing the right thing, that if I wanted to drink, I could call so and so or crash at somebody's house and drink coffee and talk through it together. But we really can't do that now."

a person eating a donut: Lindsay Ann Spurgeon, 41, of Asheville, N.C., worries about the Thanksgiving holiday because her in-person Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been canceled during the coronavirus pandemic. © Family Handout Lindsay Ann Spurgeon, 41, of Asheville, N.C., worries about the Thanksgiving holiday because her in-person Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been canceled during the coronavirus pandemic.

For many of the nation's elderly, there is no decision to be made – eating alone is simply a way of life.

Ellen Gottke, 72, is retired, widowed, sick and estranged from what remains of her family. She has closed herself off from her friends to protect herself from the coronavirus, spending all her days inside her mobile home in Lothian, Maryland.

The all-encompassing quiet has been agonizing for Gottke. One of her first jobs was running the telephone switchboards now seen only in classic movies. The work was grueling, taking calls all day, plugging in different cords to connect people to different parts of the country. But she loved the work for one simple reason: "I could talk to people."

Thanksgiving used to be a big event for her family, and Gottke cooked the turkey and ham each year. This year, she plans to spend the holiday alone with a Hormel microwave dinner of turkey and dressing. 

"It's horrible. Just horrible," she said, fighting back the tears. "And then I get so mad when I see people walking around without masks. It's hard."

About 27% of adults age 60 and older live alone, according to the Pew Research Center. Mark Bucher has seen those numbers play out in recent days on his cellphone.

The co-owner of the Medium Rare restaurant group based in Washington put out an offer to deliver a Thanksgiving meal to anyone over 70 quarantining alone. A similar effort over Mother's Day netted 225 requests. This time? He's reached 1,000 meal requests.

"The original intent was to do something uplifting and give back and be thankful for everything we have," Bucher said. "But frankly, what we've learned is that the elderly have been overlooked."

Bucher said his email inbox has been flooded with tragic stories of elderly people suffering alone. He's even gotten calls from the Washington government offering packets of personal protective equipment to deliver with the meals and asking his drivers to report back on the condition of the elderly people they visit.

The volume of requests has made this Thanksgiving drive an all-consuming endeavor, working with DoorDash to find enough drivers, ordering enough food to deliver and talking with private donors who want to help. Bucher set up an online fundraiser to help deliver meals throughout this pandemic, and he said those donations will be critical to help all the elderly people who have begged him for a warm meal.

"It's a burden, but for whatever weird reason, I see it as an obligation," Bucher said. "I feel like we have to make this happen."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 means Thanksgiving alone for many Americans

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