This story has been updated to incorporate new guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraging Thanksgiving travel.
The holidays are going to look very different this year. As the US approaches the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November, and the world anticipates a swirl of end-of-year celebrations, Covid-19 cases are reaching an all-time high.
There are safer ways to celebrate with loved ones: The safest, of course, is to keep the party within your household. On Nov. 19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that families consider postponing or canceling travel entirely. But if you must travel, the public health organization continues, there is a hefty list of questions to consider and additional safety precautions to take.
Those who have the ability to follow their instructions closely may decide the increased risk is worth it in order to share the season. But it’s important to remember that for many people, those extra precautions—and the luxury of a normal-ish holiday celebration—aren’t even an option.
For lower-income Americans, there are additional economic barriers to a safe Thanksgiving, says Nisha Puri, an epidemiology masters candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health. It’s just one more way that Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color.
Running out of time
The strongest barrier against transmission of Covid-19 is strict isolation. Experts recommend that those who decide to travel do so with extra time to factor in quarantining. Ideally, individuals would be able to isolate themselves for 14 days before leaving for travel, or quarantine for two weeks after arriving at their destination.
But that kind of flexibility is primarily available to those who can work from home. Anyone who holds an in-person service job will be unable to travel for the holidays in the safest manner without taking a hit to their income.
That disparity hits low-income, Black, and Latinx households in the US especially hard. A March analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a DC-based think tank, found that roughly 16% of Latinx workers and 20% of black workers can work from home, compared to 29% of white workers and 31% of non-Hispanic workers. And only about 10% of workers who fall in the lowest 25th percentile of income have that luxury.
In-person workers, of course, include frontline workers—people who are working in hospitals, grocery stores, or pharmacies that have stayed open. “They’ve held us up all throughout this pandemic,” says Juanita Mora, an immunologist practicing in Chicago and volunteer medical spokesperson with the American Lung Association. “When you have a lot of essential workers in one group, it’s hard to follow that guideline and even get together when in a small family reunion,” she says.
For those without the ability to strictly quarantine for 14 days, some may try to lower their risk of exposing others by getting a molecular diagnostic test before they travel. (The CDC doesn’t actually recommend testing before any kind of gathering—it only advises testing if you believe you’ve been exposed, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying this tactic.)
Testing isn’t a silver bullet: You can easily spread Covid-19, even after testing negative.
That’s because diagnostic test accuracy varies widely, depending on when you take it, your last potential exposure, and your test’s rate of false negative results. For the best shot at an accurate result, you’d take a molecular test two to five days after your last exposure to people—and then isolate yourself perfectly while you wait for your results, which can take as long as a week.
So testing doesn’t really make it easier for on-site workers to travel more safely—if they can afford to get tested in the first place.
Most insurance companies will cover a Covid-19 test if it’s medically necessary (if you’re showing symptoms, or you know you’ve been around someone who’s tested positive). But travelers taking a test voluntarily may have to pay out of pocket, and a single test without insurance can cost from $100 to $150. Add to that the increased likelihood that service industry jobs come without health benefits, and safer holiday travel becomes even more out of reach for these families.
The end of the road
If a family can surmount all those hurdles, they’ll still need to figure out how to actually reach their destination—and the act of traveling itself is a risk. Cars are safer than planes, trains, or public transportation. But choosing to make the trip in your own vehicle could mean taking even more time to drive to a far away destination, and more foregone wages.
Once you’re actually at the gathering, experts are recommending to keep it small, outdoors (if possible), and masked during downtime. Overnight guests should consider a hotel or Airbnb rather than staying in the same house with family members.
That’s clearly an expense many won’t be able to take on. And it surfaces an inequity that partially explains why Black and brown communities have disproportionately suffered at the hands of the pandemic already. More families in these communities tend to live in intergenerational households with children, parents, and grandparents all under one roof. These families may be able to share Thanksgiving together without traveling—but they’ll still likely be experiencing the same high level of risk that they have throughout the pandemic.
As you try to take steps to mitigate your own loved ones’ risk, it’s worth considering the risks to your own essential community, too. Any kind of holiday travel increases the risk of transmission to you and your community at some level. “The more strategies that you employ during the holidays, the less your risk is,” says Puri. If you do choose to travel, wearing a mask (and properly) is crucial. And finally, isolating for two weeks afterward will ensure that you don’t pass along anything you may have picked up to your hometown community.
“We just have to brace ourselves, because we’re in a very dark place as a country right now,” says Mora. “We have to keep things small and humble so no one is missing from the table next year or at Christmas.”