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Unsure of how many people to invite to Thanksgiving—or how to host the feast safely during the coronavirus pandemic? You’re not alone. A late June 2020 Butterball survey found that 21% of 1,000 adults polled say they have no idea what they’ll do this Thanksgiving, although one in four expect their holiday table to include fewer people than last year. There are a lot of unknowns around the holiday season—and, really, almost everything this year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) your safest bet is to celebrate with your household alone, of course. But if you’re certain that you want to share your Thanksgiving menu in real life, how many people is it safe to invite to Thanksgiving, and how can you ensure everyone stays healthy? We spoke to a couple of health experts for their advice.

6 Tips to Host a Safe Thanksgiving During the Coronavirus Pandemic

First, a piece of great news: “Food has not been shown to be a risk factor in transmission,” says Natalie Seymour, a food safety extension associate at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. The greatest risk for COVID-19 comes from person-to-person transmission, which is generally a factor when you’re within six feet of others for 15 minutes or longer, she explains. With that in mind, here are six savvy steps to invite right and host smart.


Know the infection rates for the communities your guests live in.

There’s a lot of variance between states and even counties within the same state, so take a look at the coronavirus test positivity rate and current case trends in the county of the host and all potential guests. If rates are climbing rapidly and the positivity rate is high, you should consider a virtual dinner or possibly postponing to a “springsgiving.”

“Elderly and immunocompromised people should not attend in-person Thanksgiving dinner celebrations, especially if the rate of community spread is high or growing, and if the holiday will be celebrated indoors,” says Sandra Kesh, M.D., the deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, New York. However, the CDC notes that preparing food for high-risk neighbors and friends and delivering in a contactless way poses a low risk.


Check for any local restrictions or regulations for gathering limits.

It’s definitely not worth breaking the law to share a meal. “Many states have guidance on the number of people for indoor versus outdoor gatherings based on local data, so that’s a good place to start,” Seymour says, especially if you’re asking, “how many people is it safe to invite to Thanksgiving?”

You’ll reduce risk by limiting the number of households in attendance, or consider inviting only family members who are local, Seymour adds. Of course, everyone will be missing loved ones, so you could consider having a virtual dinner with family members who don’t live in your house.


Measure your available space and invite accordingly.

Not that you have the public data, it’s time to examine your private logistics. Another great way to determine the number of people that’s safe to invite to Thanksgiving this year involves some measuring tape and a little math.

“What’s the size and layout of the space you are hoping to host in? Measure the space, or the table if you’re planning to share it, and invite only as many people that would allow you to maintain a truly safe distance—at least 6 feet apart,” Kesh says. “Even if your residence is large enough to host a small group of guests, and you can seat people at an appropriate distance, something to keep in mind is that when people are eating, your face masks come off. Physical distancing is key, especially when everyone is unmasked during mealtime.”


Get creative with your agenda, location, and serving style.

Yes, we know your typical Thanksgiving traditions might include rubbing elbows at a cozy communal table, challenging each other at board games, and congregating around the finger food spread during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football games. But 2020 is the time to flip the script.

“An outdoor celebration, or at least some outdoor activities, would be a great option since risk seems to be lower with outdoor gatherings. Groups could also wear masks while hanging out and then sit spaced apart with their household units while eating,” Seymour says. “Again, being close to others is the highest risk, and then touching common surfaces is the second highest.”

If you can, limit the number of people from different households cooking together in close proximity, either by ordering takeout (outsourcing for the win!), assigning cooking to one household, or if your group is local, doing dinner potluck style. Or if the weather is cooperative, try a cozy fire pit or barbecue cookout outdoors instead, Seymour suggests. (Psst…Our Test Kitchen recently developed a New England Grilled Turkey recipe that explains how to “roast” a whole bird completely on a grill.)


Ask everyone to take proper precautions for at least two weeks before Thanksgiving.

“If possible, it would be a good idea for family members to self-isolate as much as possible the weeks before everyone is together,” Seymour says. (In case you missed it, yes, it’s A-OK to ask your guests to quarantine before holiday gatherings.)

This strategy would help prevent someone from picking up the virus and bringing it to the celebration, which would be especially important if anyone who is at high risk really wants to attend. If you’re really nervous, ask all who plan to join to get tested a few days before the gathering to confirm that they’re virus-free.


Practice good hygiene during the celebration.

What mom’s been saying for decades remains true: Wash your hands early and often. Do so for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, Kesh says, and avoid sharing food, drinks, utensils, or other serviceware at all times.

Some other basic tips and strategies Kesh plans to adopt with her own family for Thanksgiving this year:

  • Host a small group in a large, open space.
  • Request that face masks stay on when food and drink aren’t being consumed.
  • Open windows throughout the home for greater ventilation.
  • Use disposable tablecloths and serviceware to make kitchen clean-up easier and to allow for surfaces to be disinfected sooner after the meal.

“Every intervention you put in place will increase your ability to host a safer Thanksgiving dinner, although of course there is never zero risk,” Kesh says.