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Editorial: Be safe, not sorry on Thanksgiving

It’s a week out from Thanksgiving today, which by tradition and necessity means families are planning their holiday, shopping, defrosting the turkey and cleaning the house.

That is about all that will be typical about the holiday this year, which the pandemic already has upheaved in virtually every other way.

With the coronavirus surging across the country and Hawaii working hard to keep its own cases under control, the essential difference will be the number of people who should be gathering in one place for the celebration.

Under the current Tier 2 public health restrictions in place for the City and County of Honolulu, that number is five. This means Thanksgiving parties should include those living within that household, with additional guests only if the diners around the table number five or fewer.

That is a real departure for most Hawaii families, who make an annual habit of assembling the extended family, often with multiple stops at other celebrations around the island. But it’s critical, all the same, that Oahu residents resolve to find safer ways of approaching their traditions, unique to the challenges of 2020.

Just a few weeks ago, a less-restrictive set of rules seemed within reach by Thanksgiving. Average infection counts and positivity rates needed to get down to below 50 and 2.49%, respectively, for two consecutive Wednesdays, the day the city makes its weekly assessment.

That would have met the criteria for Tier 3, loosening restrictions enough that groups of 10 or fewer would have been allowed — much more accommodating of family gatherings. Various businesses and activities would have greater leeway as well.

But a series of three-digit daily case counts has made that all but impossible, Mayor Kirk Caldwell acknowledged on Monday. The timing coincided roughly with the launch of tourism through the pre-travel testing program, but in fact, the infection spikes were due to community spread, largely through local social gathering.

The cause is plain enough: pandemic fatigue. Eight months into the regime of hand-washing, physical distancing and mask-wearing, people are weary of standing on guard, especially with people with whom they long to relax.

The holidays offer a potential bright spot in a year darkened by the tragedy COVID-19 can bring, the isolation and the struggles with unemployment and financial loss. The temptation to take a break is intense.

It is possible to take that needed break — but not by abandoning safe practices. Instead, families need to have a heart-to-heart and find alternative ways to have a celebration that keeps people safe. This could start with a more nuclear family face-to-face dinner around the table.

This also would be the occasion to consider going outdoors, as the virus is less likely to spread in open air. Huddling indoors watching TV for hours on end with non-household members should not be an option. Hawaii is endowed with natural beauty and a temperate year-round climate in which to enjoy it.

And there are various innovations to expand the circle. Extended families can touch base virtually — who hasn’t made a Zoom call? — or briefly by visiting from a safe distance, and masked. Have dinner and make quick stops to deliver small gifts of desserts or treats to other family members, who can appreciate the gesture without risking their health.

If a Thanksgiving super-spreader event can be averted, Hawaii can be on track for somewhat more freedom for Christmas and the rest of the holidays.

The real gift of the season would be the care Hawaii’s families give to each other, looking forward to 2021 and the hope for a happier year.

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