Pandemic forces shift of holiday plans

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Locals adjust, downsize celebrations to avoid contagion

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For five years, Carolyn Snowbarger watched as her Thanksgiving dinner grew, adding more chairs around the table.

Last year, 37 people gathered at her Ridgway home, where they sat at tables she borrowed from church and battled each other in games of Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. They chose from smoked, fried and roasted turkey, and brought their favorite dishes to share at the potluck.

This year, Snowbarger won’t move her couch into the bedroom to make room for guests, or spend hours laughing with friends and posing for group pictures. Instead, she’ll eat dinner and maybe watch a movie with her husband and son.

“As cases kept rising, I thought, I love these people too much to host a super-spreader event,” Snowbarger said of the decision to first downsize, and ultimately cancel the gathering. Their annual tradition, which started in 2015 as a way for people without family locally to celebrate together, will resume next year, when she hopes vaccines will be available and gatherings can happen with less risk.

As coronavirus cases climb locally and nationally, experts are advising against gatherings with multiple households, particularly those inside where people are eating, drinking and not wearing masks.

“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised. The agency suggested sharing meals together virtually, instead. If you are attending an event, the CDC recommends avoiding sharing food and surfaces like utensils and plates, having an outdoor meal, opening windows inside and limiting the number of people in the kitchen. Staying home, instead of traveling, “is the best way to protect yourself and others!

“It’s very important to be vigilant with the social distancing practices: number one, reducing the exposure to people outside of the household and avoiding large groups of people,” said Glen Mays, a professor of health systems, management and policy at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“If you are having other people, the clear recommendation is to limit that to no more than two different households and limit that group size to io or less,” he said.

While decisions like Snowbarger’s, to forego any mingling with other households, are the safest, if people are having multi-family gatherings, all attendees should quarantine for 14 days before Thanksgiving - a timeframe that started last week.

At a press briefing last week, Gov. Jared Polis emphasized the odds of spreading the virus at a multi-household celebration: with 1 in no Coloradans currently contagious, “if you have a Thanksgiving group of 10 folks, that means you have about a one-in-11 chance of somebody being contagious with COVID, and often not knowing it.”

“That’s a very important caution for people not to play Russian roulette over Thanksgiving. You wouldn’t do it with a gun, and you shouldn’t do it with a virus,” he said. Committing to isolation for two weeks before the holiday reduces that risk. “The more family members that make that decision to self-quarantine, the more likely it is that you’re not bringing a loaded pistol for grandma’s head,” he said.

Outside gatherings are also safer than indoors, Mays said.

“Outdoor is much lower risk, particularly if you can maintain 6 feet of social distancing, that’s even better, just because of the air circulation,” he said. “This is an airborne disease. The real risk is being in indoor settings with limited ventilation in proximity to others.”

“It’s like cigarette smoke: if you’re in that room together for an hour or two and someone is smoking, that cigarette smoke can build up in the air,” he said.

Getting tested before gathering could also be helpful, Mays said, to ensure that you aren’t positive but asymptomatic and passing that along to others.

But testing can also create a false sense of security, especially if people aren’t isolating between getting tested and going to the gathering, when they could be exposed. Someone could also test negative shortly after being exposed, before the virus is at detectable levels, and then unknowingly infect others.

The CDC also suggested preparing Thanksgiving meals and delivering them to family or neighbors “in a way that does not involve contact with others.”

Others in Ouray County are taking dinner on the go, finding ways to keep connections even if they can’t gather around the same table.

Nicole Wilson normally has about 20 people come and go by her Ridgway apartment throughout the day on Thanksgiving. This year, she’s still cooking for a crowd, but instead, friends will pick up meals to-go, and she’ll drop off dinner or leftovers for others Thursday and Friday, trying to limit the lengthy, face-to-face indoor contact that carries the highest risk.

“I love to just cook and cook meals for people and get people together, just to provide that as a gift to friends and whoever,” she said. She started her Thanksgiving tradition “because I was so happy to have a nice, cozy warm kitchen and a place I could actually host,” she said, after moving into a new apartment five years ago.

“This year, I was really bummed that it’s such a COVID risk to have people in my house,” she said, but despite the limitations, “I just am determined to continue to make it happen.”

She’s ready to adapt on the fly: if the situation worsens by next week to the point where face-to-face pickup is too much of a risk, “I’ll probably do something like go drop them off and leave them outside the door,” she said, and maybe have a Zoom cocktail remotely with friends instead.

The Krois family is also planning to deliver meals to some of their Elk Meadows neighbors, since their large gatherings can’t go on as normal this year.

“We created a google doc menu and emailed it to those we thought could be alone this holiday,” Deidra Krois said. “We will deliver the drinks, appetizers, main meal and dessert Thanksgiving afternoon. Thought we could spread a little gratitude during this difficult time of isolation.”

The Ouray Elks Lodge is changing its traditional dinein Thanksgiving dinner to take-out.

“We just figured that everybody would be safer,” Exalted Ruler Bette Maurer said. The lodge offered pick-up dinners for members this spring, and will return to that method for now..

They also canceled their annual Turkey Bingo, but that wasn’t a COVID-related decision. The lodge rented out its building to a crew producing a film for the Discovery Channel, a significant financial windfall for the organization.

The Elks are still having in-person meals on Mondays and Fridays, but the larger crowd expected for the holiday meal raised concerns, Maurer said.

“We’ll miss the camaraderie and being able to visit with people,” she said.

It took Snowbarger weeks to come to terms with canceling this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. She knew by late summer a large gathering probably wasn’t possible, but she didn’t accept it until last month. At first, she thought her niece could still travel with her family from Las Vegas for a small dinner with two other couples, so she sent out invitations for a group of 10. Then, she scaled back further to just a few local friends, before calling it off completely last week.

Bringing a group of people together right now, as cases climb in the county, would be “choosing to do something that was selfish,” she said. “I love hosting it. I wish we could do it, but it just wouldn’t be right.”

She’s already looking ahead to next year, with the recent news of progress on vaccines making her hopeful that the turkey dinner and trivia games will go on as planned. Until then she’s counting her blessings, and maybe this pandemic Thanksgiving makes her even more appreciative.

“This is a Thanksgiving where I do have lots of gratitude, for where we live, for the friends we’ve made, for the traditions we’ve created,” she said. “This is just going to be a blip. I treasure these traditions even more, because we’ve changed them, it really shows how much I do value them.”