Families alter Thanksgiving plans amid pandemic

Experts offer tips on how to celebrate turkey day safely

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published November 10, 2020

 Thanksgiving for Elyse Van Houzen’s family last year included her brother from Israel, her sister from El Paso, her sister and family from Wisconsin, and her kids from Marquette, most of which places are COVID-19 hotspots today. Out-of-town family members are all staying home this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanksgiving for Elyse Van Houzen’s family last year included her brother from Israel, her sister from El Paso, her sister and family from Wisconsin, and her kids from Marquette, most of which places are COVID-19 hotspots today. Out-of-town family members are all staying home this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo provided by Elyse Van Houzen

METRO DETROIT — Thanksgiving has always been a big deal for Elyse Van Houzen, of Franklin, who has been hosting large turkey day celebrations for friends and family for over 25 years.

 “I love to cook, and it’s my favorite thing in the entire year,” she said. “The day after Thanksgiving, I honestly start making improvements to my Thanksgiving plans for the following year.”

Every year, Van Houzen hosts a Thanksgiving eve cocktail party for around 40 of her friends and family members, followed by a large Thanksgiving feast the next day for her six children, her five siblings, their families, and others.

“Thanksgiving is our holiday. It’s more important than Christmas because the entire family comes home,” she said.

This year, Van Houzen admitted, she’s a bit depressed about Thanksgiving, which will be celebrated on a much smaller scale due to COVID-19.

“We decided to cancel (our big parties this year), and it’s so sad,” she said. “I didn’t schedule the cocktail party this year, and we just had the immediate family coming for Thanksgiving, but travel is restricted, scary and not advisable … so we all got wise and canceled.”

Whether people are self-quarantining for two weeks before heading to Grandma’s house, cozying up with the members of their household or hosting an all-virtual gathering, Thanksgiving looks a lot different this year due to COVID-19.

Van Houzen’s Thanksgiving table for 2020 will seat only those who are local — her boyfriend, three or four of her six children, and one of her five siblings.

“It will just be us, which is more than most people have, so we’re very lucky. But still, it’s sad for the others,” she said. “We will miss our family, but it’s not the wise thing to do right now.”

Van Houzen said she’s fortunate that one of her biggest problems right now is not being able to have “a fancy holiday party.”

“My boyfriend is a Detroit ER doctor, and the awful things that he sees and the tragedies every day help put me in check and remind me … we’re very, very lucky, and we need to appreciate that and be happy for what we have, which is totally true.”

Kathy LeBlanc, of Rochester Hills, who teaches cycling at the Older Persons’ Commission, will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner virtually via Zoom with her extended family this year.

Normally, LeBlanc, her husband and his four siblings and spouses head to LeBlanc’s sister-in-law’s house for a large celebration. The family, LeBlanc explained, decided not to risk it this year because some members have underlying medical conditions that put them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

“There’s no way we were going to do a big gathering like that indoors,” she said. “So we’re all going to time when we’re eating our dinner and then we’re going to sit down and have our dinner and then go on Zoom at the same time. What else can you do?”

Reef Palaj — who owns McVee’s Restaurant and Lounge in Southfield, The Hideout in Clawson, and McVee’s Pub and Grub of Troy — plans to spend Thanksgiving with his family catering to those who want a holiday off from cooking.

“We’re never open on Thanksgiving, but this year, we decided to open our location in Troy,” he said.

Those who head to McVee’s this year can avoid the stress — and the mess — of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, according to Palaj.

“People are already stressed out as it is at home from COVID-19. We can relieve that stress. There’s no dishes, no cleanup, no nothin’,” he said. “I know when I’ve had gatherings, I’ve cooked and cooked and cooked — and it’s not one day, it’s all week. Every time I’ve done a gathering, I never enjoyed it, and I was so tired for the next two to three days, it wasn’t worth it for me.”

McVee’s Pub and Grub of Troy plans to open at 11 a.m. and will offer dine-in, carryout and delivery of pre-ordered Thanksgiving meals, along with wine and homemade desserts.

“We’re offering the whole meal — the turkey, the stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce and all the fixings — and everything is homemade that day,” Palaj said.

Over at the Rochester Area Neighborhood House, Director Kathy Losinski said the nonprofit has already begun distributing Thanksgiving food to families in need.  

Through Nov. 24, when qualified individuals living within the Neighborhood House’s 100-mile service area — which includes Rochester, Rochester Hills, Auburn Hills, Oakland Township, Leonard and Addison Township — come to the Neighborhood House Food Pantry to pick up their regular curbside food order, Losinski said, they will also be able to receive a box full of traditional Thanksgiving fixings and a turkey. The food pantry is open for food pick-up 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays, and new clients can register at the pantry when they drive up for food.

Losinski said the Neighborhood House relies heavily on donations from the community, so those who can are encouraged to pick up extra food for families in need — including aluminum pans for turkeys, cans of vegetables, boxes or bags of stuffing, boxes of potatoes, cranberry sauce, Jiffy corn bread, or muffin mixes and cake mixes. Frozen turkeys are being purchased with cash donations from the community, along with donations from the Rochester Rotary Club and the Troy Newcomers Club. Donations may be delivered to the Neighborhood House Food Pantry, 1315 N. Pine St., or to the main office, 1720 S. Livernois. Cash donations may be made at ranh.org.

Those who are still deciding how to celebrate Thanksgiving this year can look to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on high-, moderate- and low-risk activities for families.

Traditional family gatherings, where extended family and friends come together indoors to enjoy a large Thanksgiving feast, are considered by the CDC to be “high risk” for getting and spreading coronavirus.

By reducing the head count to just family or friends who live in your community and moving the dinner outside, the CDC says, the holiday can be enjoyed with “moderate risk.”

If you choose to celebrate with those outside of your household, the CDC says best practices of wearing a mask, keeping a distance of 6 feet or more, and washing hands should be followed.

But the safest way to celebrate turkey day, according to the CDC, is to host a virtual dinner or a small dinner with only the people who live in your household. Dropping off Thanksgiving dinner to loved ones in a no-contact way is also considered low-risk, according to the CDC.