The 2020 guide to Thanksgiving etiquette, from dealing with COVID-19 rule-breakers to keeping debates civil

Back in March, many Americans considered it unimaginable that the coronavirus pandemic would be disrupting their Thanksgiving plans. But with COVID-19 cases rising, anxiety about celebrating safely — if at all — is running high, especially among groups in which individuals have different risk factors and comfort levels. Does it feel reckless to fly home for Grandma’s turkey and gravy? Can you scale back the guest list for your annual feast without offending loved ones? And should you just stay at home and avoid exposure to not just COVID-19, but your relatives’ unsavory political diatribes, too?

The coronavirus pandemic is making Thanksgiving festivities much more complicated this year. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
The coronavirus pandemic is making Thanksgiving festivities much more complicated this year. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

There’s a lot of potential for bruised feelings and discomfort, so Yahoo Life turned to Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, for advice on smoothing over sticky situations, whether as a guest or host.

For guests

It’s flattering to be included in a holiday celebration, especially in a year which has seen so much isolation. But, as the pandemic rages on, an invitation means carefully gauging the risks involved — COVID-19 protocols on the day, potential travel or quarantine time, and so on — and, should you choose to accept, respecting the guidelines laid out by your host. If you’re uncomfortable with the risk-mitigating practices that’ll be at play — whether because you find them inadequate, or excessive — it may be best to politely bow out.

Do your research

Before you RSVP, Gottsman says “you have to think long and hard” about what the gathering will look like and whether or not that environment meets your standards for safety. Is the event local or out of town and requiring travel? Indoor or outdoor, and, if the latter, what’s the contingency plan for bad weather? What social distancing measures will be followed? How big is the guest list, and who is on it?

“Ask those uncomfortable, hard questions,” she tells Yahoo Life, noting that, “there are some people that think, ‘Well, we’re fine, we’re healthy,’ or ‘we’re being careful,’ but if they’re inviting people that may not know each other, they may have different safety measures that they take.

“So asking how they plan to social distance — the number of guests, are they their immediate family, will they be traveling, will they be coming in from another location — all of those are fair questions.”

Unsure of how to broach the topic sensitively? Citing the pandemic and your legitimate health concerns is fair and reasonable.

“You can say, ‘These are tough questions to ask, but in light of the current circumstances, we’re doing everything we can to keep our family safe, so I appreciate your understanding,’” Gottsman advises.

Decline politely but firmly — and without guilt

“We have to be very comfortable with declining,” says Gottsman. “There should not be guilt associated with a no.”

That’s true whether you’re turning down an invitation out of an abundance of caution, or because you just want a breather from the “big personalities and big opinions” around the dinner table. In either case, however, it’s best to stick to a short and simple explanation without going into too many specifics.

“You can just say, ‘We’re staying close to home this year but we appreciate the invitation,” she suggests. “That’s it. You don’t have to offer any more than that. You don’t have to say, ‘Well, Uncle John is obnoxious, he always gets everybody going... “

Gottsman also says that someone shouldn’t feel obligated to offer a Thanksgiving Day Zoom call in lieu of attending in person — which may interfere with a busy host’s schedule anyway — or send the host, say, a pecan pie out of guilt, unless it’s something they genuinely want to do as a kind gesture. “You’re not seeking forgiveness,” she says.

But there is one etiquette faux pas anyone RSVPing “no” should bear in mind.

“Tell them right away,” she urges. “Don’t wait and procrastinate until the last minute. It’s offensive to make people wait.”

Don’t broadcast your backup plans.

Turning down an invitation, for whatever reason, doesn’t mean you have to sit out the festivities entirely. Maybe you said no to an out-of-town affair, or a large, indoor gathering that felt risky, but accepted an invite to a smaller, safer celebration. That’s fine — but flaunting it could ruffle some feathers.

“You have to be very cautious with social media,” warns Gottsman. “If you decline one invitation, but you’re out in the same scenario with another group of people, it could cause hurt feelings. Now the reality is, this other group of people may be very, very cautious, whereas the first group was not. But you still want to make sure you’re not posting everything on social media, because you’re being courteous and not wanting to hurt feelings.”

Don’t bring a surprise guest

Given the pandemic, springing a plus-one or surprise guest unknown to your host is rude and ill-advised, says Gottsman. “Now is not the time to introduce new people into the mix.”

Don't feel guilty about spending Thanksgiving at home, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Don't feel guilty about spending Thanksgiving at home, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

For hosts

Just because you’re the Martha Stewart of your family or friend group doesn’t mean you have to play host to anyone this year; it’s perfectly fine to limit your celebrations to your immediate household or a Zoom turkey dinner if that’s what feels safest to you. But if you do decide to gather your loved ones round, your biggest hosting challenge this year won’t be mastering lump-free mashed potatoes — it’ll be creating, and communicating, clear COVID-19 measures that will keep the whole group safe.

Keep numbers down without causing upset

Just as nobody can really fault someone for declining an invite out of concern for the pandemic, announcing that this year you won’t be feeding countless hordes of hungry relatives — especially if you’ve seen some of them living it up mask-free on social media — is completely fair. Gottsman advises giving your usual guests plenty of advance notice that you’re keeping numbers low this year so they have time to make alternate plans. And don’t beat yourself up for not opening up your home to a big crowd, or excluding strangers, distant acquaintances and random plus-ones. If someone asks to bring their new partner, gently explain that you’d love to meet them, but at a better time as you’re keeping numbers low.

“I think that the most direct, straightforward approach is the best approach, rather than making excuses and telling fibs,” she says. “Just be up front. Everyone will understand. Many people are thinking the same thing.”

Reach out to guests who aren’t staying safe

You’ve made it clear that your Thanksgiving Day gathering is following strict protocol, but Instagram shows your brother-in-law rocking out at a packed concert. It’s a breach you can’t just let slide, for your safety and that of your other guests.

Gottsman says it’s important to raise the issue, delicately but firmly. If you’re concerned that a guest is engaging in high-risk behavior that could compromise others — your elderly mom, for instance — share those concerns and ask if they are willing to be more cautious until your event is over.

“This isn’t just about hurt feelings — this is a matter of life and death,” she says. “You would feel remiss if you didn’t say anything and then something happened.”

And if they push back, or write off your concerns, it’s OK to withdraw your invitation and reschedule.

Gottsman suggests saying something along the lines of: “Well, these are our personal views, and it’s important to me. So I think, because we have different lifestyles right now, we need to wait to get together until another time.”

If a guest is acting up on the day itself — wearing a mask the wrong way, or not at all, or getting too close to others — it’s acceptable to tactfully ask them, in a friendly voice, to fix the issue (for instance: “Let’s stand back a little bit so we can social-distance.”). That said, it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will be on their finest Fauci-approved behavior 100 percent of the time. “You do the best that you can,” Gottsman says.

Take control

Even if it’s your home, your family members may be accustomed to commandeering your kitchen to help prepare the Thanksgiving Day feast, or routinely bicker over who brings which side dish or pie. But in light of guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that potluck-style setup is considered more high risk. If you prefer to take charge of the meal yourself, or want to restrict shared items like Aunt Suzy’s famous cranberry and cream cheese dip, you’re well within your rights to do so given the pandemic. (And if Aunt Suzy resists, suggesting a compromise, like making individual portions for different households, could be a way to keep the peace and still heed safety guidelines.)

However you decide to keep your guests safe — plenty of hand sanitizer, non-negotiable rules regarding masks, distancing, serving meals and so on — Gottsman says it’s best to clearly communicate that to your guests in advance “so there’s no surprises.” Your invite can outline the measures you’re putting in place, so that those invited know what to expect of you, and what will be expected of them. Keeping the tone friendly but firm — for example, “We love your cooking but will have to miss out this year due to COVID-19 — don’t lift a finger!” — should prevent any noses from getting out of joint.

“As the host it’s your job to let everybody know what your expectations are,” Gottsman adds. “‘I hope you’re not offended but we’re going to take temperatures when you walk through the door. If you’re sick, please stay home.’ I think that’s fair.”

Another thing to make clear: Whether out-of-town guests who would typically stay in your home are now welcome to do so this year. If you’d prefer them to quarantine or be tested first, or would feel more comfortable having them stay in a hotel or Airbnb, let them know right away. It may feel awkward to bring up, but bear in mind that the pandemic has brought on extenuating circumstances, and social graces simply can’t trump your health and safety.

Keep heated discussions civil

Thanksgiving is certainly no stranger to tension over touchy topics like politics, but 2020’s dramatic news cycle, the contentious presidential election and the politicization of things like face masks are bound to add fuel to the fire. And while you may prefer guests stick to safe subjects like football or that new Netflix show you love to hate, trying to control the conversation may be a fool’s errand. What you can do, however, is keep things from boiling over into a blowout.

“Politics probably will come up, especially right now because of everything that’s happened,” says Gottsman. “And it’s current events, and that’s what conversation is about. But if you are family and/or friends, you should be able to discuss difficult subjects, or subjects where you all do not agree, and do it in a polite, civil way. And just say, ‘Our goal is to keep this civil. We can have varying opinions, but I’d appreciate it if you would keep your tone down.’ I think the operative term is ‘let’s keep this civil.’”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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