A Thanksgiving unlike any other as families scale back gatherings

The annual Thanksgiving feast at Andrea Taglieri’s Riverhead home features all the staples: Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy. She loves mashed turnips, too, especially the side dish offered at Modern Snack Bar in Aquebogue. One year, she even cooked a Tofurky for vegetarian guests.

Her adult children typically bring dessert; her son Kyle is known to bring the best pies.

In a normal year, the celebration for Ms. Taglieri, her fiancé David Cobb and their children and spouses would include about a dozen people, including her uncle and brother. This year, the holiday would have taken on even more special meaning as it is likely their last here. Ms. Taglieri and Mr. Cobb plan to move to Arizona for retirement.

“This might be the last season I’ll be cooking for the kids,” she said. “But it is what it is.”

Ms. Taglieri, 51, will still be cooking, but like so many other families during the COVID-19 pandemic, their feast will take place from a distance.

She purchased to-go containers for individualized plates that she’ll set up on a table on the back deck so family members can pick them up.

“I don’t like pressuring the kids because they have other people to see, but if some of them feel the need to connect and eat together we’ll do that together on Zoom,” she said. “We’re blessed with that possibility.”

All across the country, families are sacrificing typical traditions and gatherings to follow guidelines meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. As cases continue to steadily climb again in Suffolk County, officials are urging people to be smart and adhere to guidelines during Thanksgiving. As more families turn to virtual gatherings, Zoom even announced this week it would lift the 40-minute maximum call time on Thanksgiving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people have a small outdoor meal if possible and limit the number of guests (easier said than done in the Northeast). Hosts should have conversations with guests ahead of time to set expectations for celebrating together, the CDC says.

The familiar safety precautions still apply as well: wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing of six feet and washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The CDC even recommends that people bring their own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils for Thanksgiving.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday urged people to remain smart around the upcoming holiday, pointing in particular to the day before Thanksgiving, which is known as a popular party night for young people.

“We’re again asking residents for their voluntary compliance with all new COVID-19 guidelines,” he said. “We know how tough this has been. Everyone is exhausted, physically, mentally. What’s abundantly clear is that this virus is spreading rapidly throughout our county once again and we need to protect the health of our communities and we cannot jeopardize our continued economic recovery.”

Current guidelines from Gov. Andrew Cuomo limit indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.

For some families, even a group of 10 won’t be worth the risk. Ms. Taglieri said her fiancé, who is 62, is at higher risk for complications, so they’re being as cautious as possible. Mr. Cobb’s son David works as a registered nurse in New York City, so they’ve seen each other infrequently since the pandemic began. Ms. Taglieri said when he has visited, they stay on the back deck where there’s ample room to distance.

“No hugging, no nothing,” she said. “It’s sad and it’s hard.”

Linda Wulforst of Calverton is used to the occasional quiet Thanksgiving. As a switchboard operator at Peconic Bay Medical Center, she typically works every other major holiday. She’ll be off this Thanksgiving and is already planning the menu. On holidays when she works, her husband handles the cooking.

“We’re going to try to keep it as normal as possible,” she said.

She purchased a 15-pound turkey from King Kullen during a recent promotion and, as a farming family, they round out their menu with local food such as potatoes from Zilnicki Farms and vegetables from Lewin Farms. 

She expects plenty of leftovers with a group of only four: Ms. Wulforst, her husband and their two sons, who are 28 and 25.

Her parents also live locally, but her father turns 82 in December and they don’t want to put him at risk.

The threat of COVID-19 became all too real for Ms. Wulforst when she was recently diagnosed with the virus. She spent 22 days at home.

“Even though I had a mild case, it puts a lot of things into perspective,” she said.

She added that she’s thankful her husband and kids have tested negative. She returned to work last Friday, still battling some lingering fatigue.

“All in all, I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.

Like many others, Ms. Wulforst may set up a Zoom call at some point on Thanksgiving to see extended family and her 3-year-old niece. Some families may go one step further in the virtual world through video games like “Animal Crossing” for Nintendo Switch.

Jules Devito, 48, of Flanders, who has a 7-year-old son, said the “Animal Crossing” game became popular at the start of the pandemic because of a visiting function where a player’s avatar can drop in to another player’s “island.” The game features a worldwide Turkey Day event for Thanksgiving.

“It’s really cute,” she said. “And I think a lot of people are going to do the ‘Animal Crossing’ Thanksgiving this year.”

Ms. Devito also plans a small celebration with just her son and her mother, who lives with them. Typically on Thanksgiving her family rotates as host, she said. On years when they host, Ms. Devito said she and her mom, who is 73 and a good cook, like to make it a big thing.

They’ll have a turkey for the three of them, even though as a vegetarian Ms. Devito said she’ll just stick to the sides.

“I’m just going to gorge myself on stuffing,” she said. “We’ll have leftovers for a month instead of a week.”

The pandemic has been particularly challenging for Ms. Devito to navigate and make ends meet without working. As a massage therapist, her job naturally requires her to be in close proximity to people, so she has opted to stay home. Her son, a second-grader, is also on remote learning, which has required a lot of her attention to help him during the school day.

When the pandemic first struck in March, Ms. Devito lost a friend to COVID-19 and that left a deep impact on her.

“She left her kids behind,” she said. “So when people are like, it’s not real, or the deaths are not real or you got to live your life and not be scared, I’m like, the family is real, the death was real and the grief is real.”

The decision to stay isolated on Thanksgiving is especially tough considering Ms. Devito has family who live across the street. Her cousin has kids around the same age as her son and they enjoy playing together.

But instead of sharing a meal around the same table, they’ll keep their distance, separated by their lawns and the roadway.

“We’ll probably just wave at each other across the street,” she said.