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Posted on November 13, 2020 at 2:01 AM

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

I just finished watching a press conference with my mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago. She announced a new stay-at-home order starting Monday that will last for at least 30 days. Before going into the specifics of what this means, she also announced that Thanksgiving was canceled. No one should be gathering in their home with anyone who is not in their household. Since indoor dining is banned and let’s face it, late November in Chicago is not a time for a picnic, this uniquely American holiday is on a hiatus this year. 

Earlier this week, the CDC recommended (because under the current Administration they do not use more forceful language) that no one travel for Thanksgiving. Travel (unless in your own car and you don’t stop for gas, refreshments, or a relief break) is risky right now. If you are hosting people, then you need a really big house because your guests must be at least 6 feet away from one another; you’ll need to clean touched surfaces frequently during your gathering; have people bring their own food, drink, plates, cups and utensils; keep the windows open; and wear a mask except when putting food into your mouth. 

While it might seem extreme and unfair (cue the “War on Christmas” rhetoric) to cancel our 2020 holidays, the spread of COVID-19 is bad. Remember your Easter and Passover 2020 gatherings? Me either because in the beginning of the U.S. version of the pandemic, we were under lock down orders and had to stay at home then. Seven months later, the pandemic is worse, far worse than it was back in March and April (except in NYC). At its height in Chicago, we had 38 cases per 100,000 population during our lockdown. As of this week we are at 72 cases per 100,000. Hospitalizations have tripled over the last month as have deaths. Certainly, we have learned more about the virus, more about how to treat patients, and we have promising treatments and potential vaccines. Although the death rate has slowed, it has not stopped and continues to increase. Those new treatments are in very short supply. A new vaccine is not yet approved, and sufficient doses for a large number of people are months to a year away. 

On November 12, the U.S. has had 10.5 million cases and 243,000 deaths. There were 144,000 new cases today alone. New Mexico only allows visitors from two states (Maine and Hawaii). Chicago has travel restrictions on all but 6 states (add California, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York). And other states are likewise limiting travel because movement between parts of the country is one way cases are spreading. A new study in Nature found that restaurants and gyms have been superspreader sites (as has the White House). Other transmission include large parties, weddings, funerals and small, intimate gatherings in people’s homes. Congregating with friends and family in a private home, when those people do not live together normally, is one of the major ways that COVID is spreading these days. These are the people we trust and feel comfortable around. These are the people that we miss seeing more. These are the people we share our holidays with. And we let down our guard and COVID spreads. 

One of the bedrock principles of bioethics is “do no harm”. One of the foundational ideas behind public health is “reduce morbidity and mortality”. From both an individualist angle and a communitarian angle, the only ethical response to this particular pandemic is to enjoy a Skypegiving, a Happy Facetimeakah, and a Merry Zoomas. The holidays will be different this year—quieter, lonelier, and paler. But if we avoid gathering now, then more people will still be alive to enjoy our celebrations in the future when we can all safety be together again. 

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