The COVID-Free Feast

Katherine Snow Smith, author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned, shares her tips for hosting Thanksgiving in a pandemic.
illustrations by Jillian Ohl

A friend of mine recently told me she was expecting 20 people to come over for Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving?” I replied, “Are we really doing that this year?” Turns out, yes: most folks are gathering. Entertaining during a pandemic seems to have gone from oxymoron, to something only morons would do, to an acceptable social experiment—if proper precautions are taken.

Naturally, lessons have been learned along the way.

Early in the pandemic, I hosted an Easter brunch in my backyard. Two of my three children were there, along with my former husband and my former motherin-law. Erring on the side of social distancing (and my sanity), I told my ex-husband that I thought he, the kids and I should spread out at my round wrought iron table, with his mom set up at a separate card table—she’s in her 80s and has some respiratory issues, after all. He agreed.

Placing said card table in the garage while we were on the deck proved a much harder sell.

As a compromise, his mom landed on the lawn, about eight feet from the rest of us. I spruced up her satellite location with a vase of fresh flowers, a personal pitcher of water and individual condiments. Conversation still flowed easily between tables, with considerably less micromanaging from the oldest guest. Success!

Holiday meals are ripe for stress and mortal combat even when the only landmines are politics, food preferences and generation gaps—so in light of the pandemic, consider these etiquette guidelines to help make your holiday run as smoothly as possible.


Not everyone observes the same social distancing protocols, so it is up to you to prevent the calamity that could arise when Cousin Bob, an elbow tapper, receives a turned-head hug from Aunt Edna. To avoid any hurt feelings (or the need for a full-on sanitizer shower), determine your guests’ greeting preference upon arrival. Then offer corresponding color-coded name tags, wristbands or family crest-emblazoned sweatshirts to broadcast it to the group. I suggest the following options:

  • Green: I’m coming in for a big hug.
  • Yellow: Elbows mean love.
  • Orange: Air hugs, please.
  • Red: Don’t come anywhere near me.
  • Purple: I’ll just sit in the car and honk when I’m hungry.


Conside these two tools to make it easy to maintain a safe distance.

  • Pool noodles are six feet long and come in seasonally-appropriate orange, so make them your go-to fall accessory. Hand one to each guest as they enter your home as a fun, festive visual aid for keeping a safe distance from loved ones.
  • A whiteboard will help communicate with any family members who can’t hear conversations quite as well from at least six feet away. (A bullhorn works nicely, too, if, perhaps someone can’t read your handwriting because your generation never valued good penmanship.)


Sitting down together can work, with a few changes:

  • Adding leaves to the dining table—and brushing up on your math skills—will be a must this year. For example, a party of 10 will require a 30-foot long table with four guests on each side and one at each end.
  • Polish your napkin rings now! They’ll work overtime this year, serving as mask holders once the napkins are removed.
  • Note that the hand sanitizer always goes to the left of the dinner plate, above the dessert fork. Consider yourself warned: stores may be sold out of all 117 renditions of pumpkin-scented hand sanitizer by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. No worries— you can actually make your own sanitizer with Everclear, aloe and essential oils. (I kid you not, Google it yourself.) Add a pinch of orange Jell-O mix for color, then pour into crystal finger bowls, placed a safe distance from any lit candles.
  • Beside each guest’s wine glass, place a full bottle of wine. It takes the stress out of refills—and it’s almost the end of 2020, who are we kidding?


After months of screen-first friendships, many of your guests have grown accustomed to instantly sharing their every thought, pouty look and dance move with the world. To keep them connected…

  • Install 150-watt bulbs throughout the master bath, where (everyone knows) the acoustics are best for your younger guests’ TikTok videos.
  • Establish a space free of childhood photos, spiderwebs, seasonal tchotchkes and anything else that would completely ruin your college students’ low-angle Snapchat stories.
  • Clear the countertops and turn on the oven light so Grandma can share her latest recipe posts on Facebook.


With all that’s going on, Thanksgiving 2020 may be the hardest yet to navigate. Steer clear of just a few subjects:

Religion • sex • gender • gender reveals • fire • ice • ICE • Russia • China • Ukraine • Israel • Switzerland • money • the economy • taxes • politics • social justice • healthcare • vaccines • anti-vaccing • Bill Gates • 5G • mesh • revealing clothes • clothing stores • store closings • Jeff Bezos • TikTok • digital clocks • cuckoo clocks • sundials • the sun • the moon • the tides • the weather • the environment • protests • sports • events • mass gatherings • mass hysteria • CBD • the CDC • CVS • CBS • cable news • network TV • screen time • virtual school • in-person school • books • letters • mail • the Post Office • buildings • walls • the Wall • Humpty Dumpty • Was he pushed? • hair salons • barber shops • barber shop quartets • the Masked Singer • masks • scuba • Are you for scuba? • diving • water • LaCroix • Sercy • beer • wine • drugs • legalize? • ….

While it can be challenging to navigate the New Normal, especially around the holidays, just remember that no matter how much the world changes, two things remain the same: family members drive each other crazy—and we love each other tremendously anyway.

This Thanksgiving, may your beautifully-browned turkey be filled with carrots, garlic, shallots and cornbread stuffing. Just remember: in 2020, a bird is never fully dressed without a mask.