NEW YORK — Thanksgiving is Jonatan Mitchell's favorite holiday, usually spent with his wife co-hosting up to 20 loved ones. He’d been looking forward to the gathering this year after calling it off in 2020 due to the pandemic, but one of the most pressing issues of the times got in the way: Who’s vaccinated and who’s not?
Mitchell, 35, in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, has a rare neurological disorder called Kleine-Levin Syndrome and a smattering of related health issues that leave him at high risk should he contract COVID. Two relatives — his father-in-law and a brother-in-law — won't get vaccinated.
Rather than laying down an ultimatum doomed to fail, the Mitchells called off Thanksgiving, choosing instead to host a Friendsgiving the following day. Mitchell's vaccinated wife will catch up with her family on Thursday.
The situation, which Mitchell said is upsetting and frustrating, resonates with many families navigating the vaccination divide for the holidays. Thanksgiving is a bellwether for how the rest of the season will go among those facing family conflict over the shot.
“This is a line in the sand I'm willing to draw with others,” Mitchell said of the choice not to confront his unvaccinated relatives. “I've cut off a handful of friends and acquaintances that are staunchly anti-vaccine, but you can't do that with family.”
That sentiment, echoed by others, points to a transition in the pandemic from abject fear over public safety to a more long-term and intimate reshaping of social norms, said Karla Erickson, a professor of sociology at Grinnell College.
“Families often kind of mute conflicts and, because we paused in a way that’s really rare for families, the restarting of ritual gives us a moment to reconsider things,” she said. “There will be new hesitancy. A lot of people who are vaccinated might not be willing to go to an event where the host hasn't asked or doesn't know.”
Carrie Verrocchio, 55, in Binghamton, New York, is a long-haul COVID survivor still struggling with a loss of taste and smell 10 months after testing positive. She's hosting about 11 for Thanksgiving. Five are unvaccinated. All have been informed, she said.
“You just want people to be happy and be together, and it feels like there is constant friction. No matter what we do, there’s constant friction these days,” said Verrocchio, who took the vaccination after contracting the virus. “We're handling it by letting everyone make their own decisions. It isn't ideal, but it is a plan.”
Lizzie Post is the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette legend Emily Post. Her famous relative wrote her first book, “Etiquette,” in 1922, not long after the Spanish flu took its deadly toll. Emily made no mention of how to navigate such a threat in that first edition, but the subject today is hard for her etiquette standard bearers to ignore.
“It's a really delicate subject, and it's not going to go well for everybody,” said Post, who is co-president of the Emily Post Institute, host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast, and author and co-author of several books on etiquette.
“A lot of us have gotten used to general entertaining since vaccinations have been in play. That means we actually have experience with it and we know where our standards are for ourselves. But there are some really good reasons to back off and say, you know, maybe the big family thing isn’t worth it if it’s going to be so fraught," she said.
The avoidance of fraught is exactly the approach Eva Keller and her husband are taking for Thanksgiving. He has been vaccinated. She has contracted COVID twice and has no plans to get the shot. There was no talk of Thanksgiving with her husband's kin.
“My husband's family has made it clear that I'm not allowed inside any of their homes until I'm fully vaccinated,” said Keller, 27, in Anaheim, California. “My husband only got vaccinated because of his parents insisting. He was concerned his mother would worry herself to death if he didn't.”
The two will spend Thanksgiving at home together.
Erickson sees other pandemic strands at play heading into the holiday season.
“There are also questions," she said, "like how did this person or this family navigate the pandemic more generally? Do we share values about what this last year has meant for our families? Did we stay in touch? Have we reconnected enough to share the holiday?”
August Abbott answers etiquette questions at JustAnswer.com, a help line that has just over 10 million unique monthly visitors. Of late, she has been responding to a barrage of questions about holiday gatherings and vaccinations. Among them: Is it rude to ask for a guest's vaccination status? Can I disinvite somebody who isn't vaccinated?
“It's kind of like Typhoid Mary. Do you invite her to dinner knowing she’s Typhoid Mary, or do you explain to Mary, `I’m sorry, we can’t take a chance. We love you, but we can’t take that chance.' That’s what you’ve got to do with unvaccinated people when it comes to COVID, most especially if someone in your household is elderly or immunocompromised. This is just a matter of health and respecting each other, not political,” she said.
Tone, Abbott said, is everything.
“So it’s not unreasonable to say to Uncle Jack, you know, you haven’t been vaccinated. That’s your prerogative. I respect that. I love you. We can’t take the chance. So, Uncle Jack, do you want to come to this dinner via video? There are options like that, but you can’t jeopardize health to be polite," she said.
Frederick Brushaber, 36, in Cincinnati will be gathering for Thanksgiving with 13 family members at his mother's house in Knoxville, Tennessee. The group includes his husband and their 15-month-old son, Freddie, who has Down syndrome, which puts him at higher risk for complications should he catch COVID.
Brushaber's 88-year-old grandmother, who lost her husband this year, was supposed to be driving from Florida to Knoxville with an aunt and uncle. They're not vaccinated. They won't be coming after his mother had the Thanksgiving vaccination talk with them. That means grandma must board a plane alone for the first time without her husband.
“I'm not thrilled about that but I’m just happy I get to be the winner of this,” he said. “I get to have grandma and Freddie be there and I won’t have to worry about anything. The numbers for people with Down syndrome are really bad. I just wish people knew that like, yeah, you have a choice to do things, but some of the most vulnerable people don’t have a choice.”