'How Do I Get The Pretzel Jello Salad?' Families Reimagine Thanksgiving In A Pandemic
Some time between mid-November and the end of the year, the pace of people's lives traditionally picks up with holiday shopping, decorating and planning meals for crowds of people. But this year, COVID-19, the deadliest virus outbreak in over a century, has derailed many plans.
For Sean Burton, in Lakeside Park, Ky., this time last year was especially busy.
"I got married last year on October 31 to my wife and then we had our reception the week after, and then a couple weeks later — we'd been fostering dogs — and we're what they call 'foster fail.' We kept our dog," he says.
He and his wife Amy Sierschula ended up with a German shepherd-lab mix named Rocky.
This year — right after Burton's 40th birthday in early October — the number of COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket across the country and it's no better now.
Last week, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued a statewide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued tighter restrictions on public and private gatherings. This worried Buton.
"It just seems like every time people get together, no matter how careful they are, infections happen," he says.
'Less Presents More Presence'
Cincinnati resident Kate Lopez knows that better than most people. She's an occupational therapist at Mercy Health.
"This virus is bizarre and it's really hard to anticipate what's going to happen," she says.
Lopez is not speaking on behalf of the hospital but shared some of her experiences working in the medical field during a pandemic. She says mortality rates don't tell the whole story of COVID-19, though more than 250,000 people have died of the virus. She says others have long term lingering symptoms
But her family so far has stayed healthy.
"I'm kind of proud of that fact that we've done so well for so long and I don't want anything to kind of mess that up, especially as the numbers are spiking," she says. "We're seeing numbers at our hospital that are higher than we've had the entire time and I say that every day because it feels like we pass that number every day that I go into the hospital."
Before the pandemic, she used a fresh mask every time she went into a room where someone had an airborne virus. Now she wears goggles and uses the same surgical mask for a week, due to a depleted supply.
For her and the rest of her extended family — her parents, three siblings and six kids in the mix — that chance of passing the virus on to each other is too probable. They're not getting together for Thanksgiving like they do every year at her mom's home in Colerain Township.
"My son was the biggest one. He's 11 and he was the one that 1,000% did not want to miss Grandma's cooking," she says. "And so that kind of started the process, like, 'Wait a minute, we're not doing Thanksgiving? But how am I going to get the pretzel jello salad?' "
Pretzel Jello salad — that's strawberry jello, a layer of whipped cream, and a pretzel crust, his grandma's specialty.
She says the family decided to do a potluck exchange the Friday after Thanksgiving and plan to enjoy a Zoom conference together on Saturday.
"We thought that would be ... a good substitute. But if we avoid this year then hopefully we can still be together without any issues in-person next year," she says.
Missing out on the holiday traditions isn't ideal, but Lopez says it has made her think about a holiday phrase she hears every year: Less presents, more presence.
"We say that every holiday season — that we should focus on the non-material things — but I really believe that this holiday season is making us do that and appreciate one another and feeling that, that loss of not being able to be together," she says. "It really makes you appreciate your family more. So I think that's definitely a silver lining."
"I Don't Know What We're Going To Do'
Not everyone has been lucky enough to recreate the holiday with their family.
Lakeside Park's Burton says he's not headed to his parents' house for Thanksgiving either. His brother, who got COVID after attending a wedding, will be there — something Burton says kind of irritates him.
"We haven't talked about that, but he's my older brother and so we've got that kind of dynamic where he knows what's right and I'm just being silly," he says.
He and his wife Amy might meet with her family for an outside gathering the day after Thanksgiving but that's still up in the air.
"I don't know what Amy and I are going to do. Might just pick up something from Bob Evans or order pizza. I don't know — with two people you can't really have a Thanksgiving dinner of any real size."
The CDC recommends limiting the number of people at gatherings this year, ventilating indoor spaces and opting for online get-togethers instead of in person.