An American holiday beloved for its big family get-togethers arrived Thursday amid the coronavirus pandemic’s worst surge yet, forcing Californians to recast their plans as health officials warned against indoor gatherings they fear will spread the virus further.
Around the Bay Area, extravagant meals were downsized to casual park hangouts. Turkey trots that normally draw thousands of runners turned into family-only jogs. Meal giveaways became socially-distanced affairs. But as different as the holiday looked this season, it still brought a sense of reflection for many — especially during a grueling year marked by a global pandemic and political unrest.
Stephanie Fustar, 43, of San Carlos, took her family to Cuesta Park in Mountain View to meet up with her in-laws for a picnic Thursday afternoon. The six adults chatted with their masks on, a smorgasbord of appetizers and desserts spread across a foldable table, while Fustar’s two young children played nearby.
“I know there’s a lot people staying home and not doing anything, so I feel fortunate that we can at least see our family in person,” Fustar said. “We felt like this was a really safe way to still be able to spend time with them and make it a meaningful holiday — even without the usual splendor.”
California’s average daily coronavirus case count and death toll have more than doubled since just two weeks ago. The seven-day infection rate reached an all-time high once again as of Wednesday, with 13,621 new cases per day, while more than 500 Californians died from COVID-19 just this week — an average of about 73 per day. Hospitalizations are likewise climbing, with more COVID-19 patients statewide than at any point since Aug. 6, according to the California Department of Public Health.
That upswing convinced many that gathering indoors isn’t worth the risk. San Francisco resident Martha Shaughnessy, 41, usually spends the holiday with more than a dozen relatives scattered across the region, but this year, she ordered a Thanksgiving meal from a restaurant down the street and holed up with just her immediate family.
Shaughnessy’s sister received a liver transplant on Thanksgiving Day 20 years ago, so thinking of all the health-care workers working tirelessly during the pandemic made the family’s decision not to gather easier, she said. Instead, she FaceTimed with her extended family and planned a virtual board game night on the app Discord.
“We’re all ready to take this one on the chin, because things have changed so drastically in the last couple of weeks,” Shaughnessy said.
As the holiday drew closer, public health officials’ warnings against traditional meals reached a fever pitch. On Wednesday, a group South Bay officials urged folks one last time to cancel their Thanksgiving plans — including all travel — in light of increasing case counts that have disproportionately affected the Latinx community.
“Even if you know somebody well, they could be COVID-positive,” said Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez. “You could be COVID-positive and cause illness or death to a family member. We’re asking people here to be safe.”
That didn’t stop thousands of people from jetting to and from the region this week. Although travel is expected to be down by about 13% statewide compared to prior Thanksgivings, Mineta San José International Airport expects more than 100,000 travelers between Nov. 20 and 30. San Francisco International has seen about one-quarter of the nearly 500,000 travelers it typically counts this time of year.
Art Panos, a graduate student at Stanford University, stayed on campus to do research rather than travel down to Los Angeles, trading family time for lab work, sandwiches and FaceTime calls.
“It would be nice to be with family, but it is what it is, and it’s better to be safe,” Panos said. “Plus, I guess the fact that I’m being productive is sort of a good opportunity cost.”
Meanwhile, organizations serving homeless folks and others in need geared up for their own work — with a twist. In Oakland, city council members, firefighters and volunteers handed out 500 Thanksgiving meals and personal protective equipment at a drive-thru event at the Planet Fitness parking lot on MacArthur Boulevard, with another 500 kits to be distributed to unhoused people and seniors.
Oakland chef Jose Ortiz, 61, who owns La Perla Puerto Rican Cuisine in the Dimond district, spent about 12 hours each day for the past week with seven other family members cooking the to-go meals of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy — complete with Puerto Rican spices, he said with a laugh.
“It’s a great feeling. I’m very thankful to be able to be here with the community and provide them some good meals,” Ortiz said. “When you cook, you cook with love.”
Others found their own ways to give back. In Cupertino, Mark Fischer-Colbrie met two of his adult children at a track to race them in the “virtual” Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot — a years-long family tradition that Thanksgiving would not be the same without.
The race, which typically floods the streets of downtown San Jose with more than 20,000 people Thanksgiving morning, offered a virtual entry this year to more than 10,000 — and sold out a week before the holiday. Fischer-Colbrie, who has taken part in the race for the past 10 years, said he never hesitated signing up for the virtual version, which will fund five local nonprofits through the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation.
“Although obviously the event is different this year, it’s really about the fundamental concept of supporting the community and good causes,” Fischer-Colbrie said.
And yet it’s hard not to yearn for some return to normalcy. Shaughnessy of San Francisco hopes that her family can hold out for a gift-giving event next month for Christmas, potentially for a beach day or patio hangout.
“Getting together is a big deal for us all on Christmas, so I’m putting all my planning power into that,” Shaughnessy said. “But if we have to skip out on it next month and figure out how to do Christmas in April, we will.”