As summer comes to an end and fall approaches, employers—including the federal government and some school districts and airlines—are enacting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and New York City is requiring people to provide proof of vaccination if they want to dine indoors or attend a movie. American families need to set the same boundaries. Your unvaccinated relatives should not be invited to Thanksgiving.
It’s time to start making those phone calls and texts telling your guests to get their official vaccine cards or verification apps ready because they’ll have to show proof at the door.
Many people believe in putting politics aside on holidays, so, like other contentious issues on which family members can disagree, the topic of vaccination might feel easier to avoid or ignore. Maybe you’re hesitant to enforce a vaccine mandate because you feel it will cause a rift during a season when people should be enjoying time together. Or perhaps you think excluding your anti-vax or vaccine-hesitant relatives will destroy the trust and closeness that might otherwise let you eventually convince them to get the shot. But excluding people has nothing to do with being mean or nice to them—it is about preventing the spread of a deadly disease. This is a matter of infection control.
Plus, requiring vaccines for entrance in November doesn’t mean you can’t be kind. You’re still free to be gentle and patient and listen to your unvaccinated relatives’ concerns about getting the shot on the phone, before the holiday. If you live close enough, you can even meet up with them individually (while masked or distanced and outdoors) to make your pitch.
But it’s not fair to put others at risk of breakthrough infection by having these conversations at Thanksgiving. Family gatherings are places where people interact closely in a closed space, laughing, talking, and eating—ideal conditions for the virus to spread. There have been reports of people being diagnosed with breakthrough infections after attending weddings or parties with other fully vaccinated guests. That is, the risk of a vaccinated Thanksgiving is not zero. But that risk goes way up if there are unvaccinated attendees, who have a greater chance of carrying the virus and increase the risk that others may be infected—especially when community spread of the virus is high, which it is in most of the US.
By having a vaxxed-only holiday, you’ll be communicating that safety is so important to you that you’re willing to deal with some discomfort and inconvenience. Plus, it will serve as an incentive. The conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute concluded based on a survey conducted in May this this type of positive peer pressure may be more powerful than partisan motivation when it comes to pushing people to get people vaccinated.
Of course, you don’t want to punish relatives who would love to get the shot but haven’t been able to. It is true that many in America are unvaccinated because they face barriers to vaccination, like being unable to take paid time off or not having transportation. Here is where you as a family member can help—before the holiday. You can arrange transportation, you can help to book appointments, and if you can afford it, you can even offer a gift card to compensate for any time they have to take off. If they live close enough, you can go with them to get their vaccine. These gestures are far more meaningful and loving than choosing to overlook the risks for a day.
Maybe you and the other adults in your family are willing to accept the risk of breakthrough infections that comes with being around unvaccinated people. If that’s the case, require vaccinations to protect the children (and any of the rare adults who cannot receive the vaccine on the advice of their doctors, who should of course receive an exception and be invited to the gathering). Kids under 12 still can’t get vaccinated and allowing unvaccinated people to family gatherings puts these family members in danger. Considering rising pediatric hospital admissions for COVID, that’s no longer a risk we can dismiss. You also need to consider immunocompromised guests for whom vaccination may not be as effective.
As Thanksgiving travel caused a surge in cases last year, it’s especially justified to be wary of unvaccinated people participating in your gathering. Quarantine and testing protocols can help mitigate the risk an unvaccinated person poses, but they’re full of holes and hard to monitor (and asking someone to quarantine may lead to tough conversations anyway). You’d need to use rapid tests immediately before the event. And those can produce false negatives. A person can test negative and still infect people—as happened on a flight to New Zealand last year. The bottom line is, the risk is lower with vaccination. Plus, an unvaccinated person isn’t just putting your family at risk, they are putting every stranger they encounter on the journey at risk too.
The reality is that with the delta variant spreading fast through the U.S. and other variants on the horizon, even families who require vaccination for holiday gatherings should take other precautions as well, especially if community spread is still high. Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, suggested holding events outdoors, getting a rapid test at a drugstore before the event, masking, and opening windows. You may also want to limit the size of the gatherings. “You want to stack as many layers of protection as possible,” he said, “and requiring that everyone be vaccinated is one way of doing that.”
Having a vaxxed-only Thanksgiving isn’t about punishing family members who don’t make the cut. After all, vaccination is a collective endeavor, not an individual one, which means any anger we may have about our country’s failure to control the spread of the virus is best directed toward the forces that have peddled misinformation and made it harder to get a shot, than it is toward our unvaccinated friends and family. But part of recognizing that ending the pandemic is a collective project means realizing that we have responsibilities to people other than ourselves. We have a responsibility as hosts to ensure our homes are as safe as possible and we have a responsibility to our loved ones to do as much as we can to ensure they get vaccinated. To really be in the holiday spirit is to gather safely.