Back in the spring, Pauline Criel and her cousins talked about reuniting for Thanksgiving at her home near Detroit after many painful months of seclusion because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the virus had a different plan. Michigan is now the nation's hot spot. Hospitals there are teeming with patients, and schools are scaling back in-person learning. A resurgent virus has pushed new infections in the U.S. to 95,000 daily, hospitals in Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona are also under pressure, and health officials are pleading with unvaccinated people not to travel.
Criel's big family feast was put on hold. She is roasting a turkey and whipping together a pistachio fluff salad — an annual tradition — but only for her, her husband and two grown boys.
"I'm going to wear my stretchy pants and eat too much — and no one's going to care," she said.
Her story reflects the Thanksgiving dilemma that families across America are facing as the gatherings become burdened with the same political and coronavirus debates consuming other arenas.
As they gather for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie, they are confronted with a list of questions: Can they once again hold big get-togethers? Can they gather at all? Should they invite unvaccinated family members? Should they demand a negative test before a guest is allowed at the dinner table or a spot on sofa for an afternoon of football?
"I know that it might be overkill that we're not sharing Thanksgiving here with my cousins, but better be safe than sorry, right?" said Criel, a 58-year-old data administrator for a finance company.
Jocelyn Ragusin, an accountant from Littleton, Colorado, is taking a different approach by prioritizing family time over COVID-19 concerns even as rising case counts and overwhelmed hospitals triggered new mask mandates in the Denver area this week. Ragusin, whose husband contracted the virus and spent four days in the intensive care unit in October 2020, said she is willing to accept a certain level of risk to have a sense of community back.
She said about seven or eight family members would be gathering for the holiday and that the group had not discussed one another's vaccination status beforehand, in part because they "kind of know" already who got the shots and who has had the virus already.
"Getting together is worth it. And getting together and sharing meals, and sharing life," Ragusin said while picking up her mother at the airport in Denver. "We're just not made to live in isolation."
The desire to bring family and friends back together for Thanksgiving was evident Wednesday in San Francisco, where the line at one grocery store stretched out the door and around the corner.
Mari Arreola was in line to buy ingredients to make tamales for a meal that will also feature salsa, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy. She sees the gathering of 12 family members this year as a symbol of hope that things are getting better. A year ago, she spent Thanksgiving only with her husband, mom and one daughter.
"We felt really disconnected, and we were all living our lives based on fear, and it looked like an apocalypse scene outside every time you left your house," the San Francisco tech consultant said of last year. "It was really scary, but now things are different."
Even in better times, Thanksgiving has always been a trying occasion for Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Georgetown University, who loathes the awkward and divisive conversations about politics, race and other hot-button issues. COVID-19 has only made the holiday worse.
She and her husband were hoping to have a big family gathering for Thanksgiving at their home near Silver Spring, Maryland, but the start of a winter surge and lingering concerns about breakthrough cases scuttled those plans. She recently told her father and his family — even if they are vaccinated — that they must be tested to prove they are virus-free or sit out Thanksgiving dinner.
With two of Brown's three daughters, 2 and 4, unable to get vaccinated, she doesn't want to take any chances — "because we don't know the long term impacts of COVID on children," she explained.
Her decision means her father, Dr. Joseph Brown, won't be coming from his home about three hours away in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The dentist is vaccinated, but said he didn't have time to get tested.
"It hurts me a lot. I want to see my grandkids," said Joseph Brown, while adding, "I understand her situation. I really do."
Riva Letchinger, who has seen the ravages of the pandemic firsthand as a medical student, set aside her worries to travel from her home in New York City to Washington to resume Thanksgiving festivities with her family. They skipped the gathering last year.
She said she has been reassured that everyone there has been vaccinated and received booster shots, but she is also worried about her own virus status, even though she is fully vaccinated.
"I have this consistent fear of hurting someone in my family or getting them sick because I see so many COVID patients every day," she said.
Despite her trepidations, Letchinger is looking forward to the annual family ritual, which includes a generous complement of Jewish favorites — like the golumpkis, or stuffed cabbage, that her late aunt Susie used to bring to the Thanksgiving feast.
But the celebration will have somber undertones as well. The family lost two loved ones, both Holocaust survivors, after bouts with COVID-19 last year.