Thanksgiving in the time of coronavirus

Joni Marginot, Tricia Seifert, Susan Wallens and Dan Wonsowski from Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church handed out boxes of food for locals to prepare into Thanksgiving feasts. The church has changed its plans this year, opting to distribute foodstuffs early instead of hosting its usual sit down meal on Thanksgiving Day. Across Marfa, many residents are changing their traditions this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by J.D. Garcia

UNITED STATES — In non-pandemic times, the Ferguson family might spend the Thanksgiving holiday in the Dallas area. Presidio Mayor John Ferguson and his wife Lucy have family up there, including their son and Ferguson’s mother. Their daughter and son-in-law live just across the border in Ojinaga.

But as coronavirus cases rise in Presidio and across the country, those traditions aren’t happening this year. Even the short drive to Ojinaga feels too risky.

Instead, “It’ll be Lucy and myself,” Ferguson said in a phone interview last week. “We did buy a turkey. Lucy wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner. With the rest of the day, I’m sure we’ll take a hike or a bike ride.”

In an era of social distancing, few holidays cut against the advice of health officials quite like Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday of sharing potluck meals, of traveling across the country to cozy up with loved ones.

Put another way, Thanksgiving is just the latest social event — from weddings and music festivals to movie nights and dinner dates — that Americans are being asked to sacrifice this year for the safety of themselves and others. Last Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidance discouraging many of the hallmarks of Thanksgiving, including travel, indoor gatherings and food-sharing.

Some Americans didn’t get the message. Or maybe, after eight months of isolation and loneliness, a contagious virus just isn’t their top concern.

More than one million people took domestic flights through U.S. airports on Friday, according to the Transportation Security Administration. When TV reporters surveyed a packed airport terminal in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday, some travelers said they weren’t aware of the latest CDC advice.

That isn’t everyone’s story, though. Since basically the start of the pandemic in March, experts have warned that the 2020 winter holiday season could mark a low point in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

In China, where the pandemic started, Chinese New Year festivities helped coronavirus spread through train stations, airports and banquets. Cold weather is another risk factor for infectious airborne diseases, because people are more likely to seek warmth indoors. Besides, experts warn many Americans are feeling pandemic “fatigue” after months of sacrifices.

On the other hand, many Americans are starting to feel a sense of hope as promising vaccine news emerges. And after months of social distancing, some Americans seem to have hit a holding pattern where it almost seems normal.

While CDC’s guidance on Thanksgiving may have come out just last week, it’s not so different from the advice health experts have given for months. If anything, that advice is just harder to follow during the holiday season than it was for the first few months this spring.

In Marfa, resident Maggie Marquez, 76, has lots of family in the region. Among them are the family of Steve Marquez, her son and the chief of Marfa police.

In non-pandemic times, Maggie Marquez might have a couple dozen people at her house for the holiday. “Sometimes I have the whole police department,” she said with a rueful laugh, “but not this year. Not this year.”

Instead, like the Fergusons, Marquez is planning on a two-person Thanksgiving, just her and her husband. “It’s sad,” she said, but her family thought it was for the best and she agreed.

Her husband has pre-existing conditions like diabetes, which puts him at higher risk for complications for coronavirus. Earlier this month, they took him to the hospital after his potassium levels spiked.

At the hospital, it felt like there was “a lot of COVID,” she said. “That’s when we decided everybody’s going to stay home.”

Two blocks away, Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez is also planning a Thanksgiving with just his immediate family, including his wife Christa and their five children. It’ll be a big change from past years.

Usually, the Marquez family Thanksgiving party “gets pretty big,” he said. “My brothers and my sisters come down. My nephew in the Army, if he’s on leave, he’ll come down.”

Not this year, though. As a frontline worker, Steve Marquez worries about getting his parents sick.

“My mom wants to see her grandkids,” he said. “I have to keep telling her, ‘Look, mom, I had interactions with [all] these people, so don’t come by here for the next two weeks.’”

The Marquez family is trying to find ways to stay festive despite the circumstances. For one, Maggie Marquez is leaving packages of her famous stuffing outside, so that the police chief and other relatives can pick up an order.

“It’s not Thanksgiving unless you have that stuffing,” Steve Marquez said. “It’s really good.”


For another, he says his family plans to start Christmas festivities early this year. They’ll put up a Christmas tree on Thanksgiving night. They’ll watch holiday favorites, like “Frosty the Snowman” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

In an ordinary year, the Marquez kids might spend the day outside, playing with their cousins. But “this year, without the little cousins, we’re trying to keep their spirits up.”

For young people, the Thanksgiving break doesn’t always mean heading home for the holidays. But it has for Jacob Rockey, a 24-year-old who started as a manager at Marfa Public Radio earlier this year.

“I had an optimistic thought that maybe by Thanksgiving I’d be able to go home and see family,” he said. The holiday was always important to Rockey, not least because his grandmother’s birthday falls around the same time. This year, she’s turning 89.

But as the pandemic dragged on, and spring turned to fall, “I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to,” Rockey said. For the first time, he won’t be traveling home for the Thanksgiving holidays. Instead, he’s planning a Nashville-themed outdoor meal with two friends, featuring Nashville-style hot chicken and maybe also a screening of the movie “Nashville.”

Rockey wasn’t seeing his family, but at least he had his coronavirus pod. “We’ll get together sometimes and just hang out outdoors,” he explained. “We all live alone.”

From her office at the Presidio County Courthouse, her face often covered with a face shield, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara has spent months issuing news releases on local outbreaks and deaths and urging residents to take precautions. Wear a mask. Wash hands regularly. Keep a safe distance from people outside your household.

Guevara has family throughout the area. A sister in Fort Davis, a brother in Lubbock, another in Las Cruces, New Mexico. In normal years, they might all meet for the holiday — but not this year.

“If you’ve noticed, every outbreak we’ve ever had is after people get together,” Guevara said in a phone interview. “Hopefully, for Thanksgiving, we won’t see a huge outbreak afterwards.”

This year, Guevara is following her health advice to residents: Keep a safe distance from people outside your household.

Back in Presidio, the perennially cheerful Mayor Ferguson is staying optimistic about the upcoming holiday. Physically congregating with family isn’t what’s most important to him right now, he said.

“We always try to find a way to be grateful for every day,” he explained, “and Thanksgiving’s really not terribly different. We know how much we love each other, and it doesn’t get diminished by one time of not being able to get together.”

Thanksgiving won’t be all different at the Ferguson house this year. They’re still having turkey, and Lucy Ferguson is planning to make the family favorite, a peanut butter and chocolate pie.

“It’s really delicious,” John Ferguson said. “Whenever she makes it, everybody offers to take home the leftovers.” At least this year, the Fergusons will get to keep the pie.