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As U.S. COVID-19 cases climb toward a new peak and hospitalizations increase across most of the country, more than a third of registered voters (34 percent) plan to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends or family from outside their households, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — and nearly all of them plan to gather indoors.
Another quarter (25 percent) say they’re still not sure how they will spend the Thanksgiving holiday, meaning that right now, amid a worsening pandemic, a majority of American voters are at least considering joining friends or family indoors on Nov. 26.
The survey, which was conducted from Oct. 16 to 18, reveals just how challenging it may be to contain America’s latest COVID-19 surge. New daily cases recently topped 70,000 nationwide for the first time since July; hospitalizations are on the rise in 39 states, with 16 approaching or exceeding all-time highs. Colder weather is making outdoor gatherings impractical in many places. And the big, garrulous, close-knit indoor meals with friends and family that define the holiday season are precisely the stuff that superspreader events are made of.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, told Yahoo News last week that he would not celebrate Thanksgiving with his children because they are concerned about spreading the deadly virus. “I have three children that I would love to see over Thanksgiving,” Fauci said. The 79-year-old doctor noted that he falls in a vulnerable age group.
Yet many Americans won’t be following Fauci’s lead. Beyond the 30 percent of respondents who plan to gather indoors with friends or extended family and the 25 percent who haven’t ruled it out — percentages that could represent tens of millions of people, or more — 9 percent of respondents say they plan to travel for Thanksgiving. Another 9 percent are considering it. And just 21 percent of those who plan to gather with friends or extended family members say they would be willing to cancel their Thanksgiving plans if COVID-19 cases surged in their area.
One month later, it’s Christmas.
The point isn’t to shame Americans into skipping the holidays. We’re all weary of the virus. We all want to hit pause for a special day. We’re all desperate to eat, drink, relax and watch football with loved ones. And we all care about keeping our friends and family safe. There are no satisfying choices here.
But America will face a test on Thanksgiving, and it’s basically just a supercharged version of the test we have faced throughout the pandemic: How much normal is OK right now?
The problem is that it’s a test we have failed time and again in circumstances far less tempting than Thanksgiving — which in turn is why Thanksgiving itself has suddenly become a far more dangerous temptation than it had to be.
After the devastating initial wave of COVID-19 infections caught New York and other Eastern metropolises off guard, scientists gradually figured out that the virus isn’t as hard to control as we first feared. No need to Clorox your cereal boxes. Just wear a mask, especially indoors. Stay 6 feet away from others whenever you’re not masked up. And try to gather outside. You should be fine.
Yet too many Americans have accepted a false dichotomy that ignores this precious, hard-won wisdom and pretends that instead we have only two extreme options: Either submit to crippling government lockdowns that decimate our businesses and force us to hide in our homes, which almost no one is actually advocating — or defiantly resume, to one risky degree or another, our normal, maskless, indoor, non-socially-distanced lives.
“This has been wrongly framed as a debate between lockdown and no lockdown,” Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, recently told the New York Times. “There is a middle way.”
And so whenever case counts seem to abate, too many fatigued Americans take it as permission to abandon even these tolerable precautions, as if there were no sensible, sustainable compromise between lockdown and normal. According to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll, tens of millions of Americans remove their mask indoors with people who aren’t immediate family members at least once a week (27 percent) or less often but occasionally (19 percent). Tens of millions of Americans eat indoors at a restaurant at least once a week (18 percent) or less often but occasionally (30 percent). Tens of millions of Americans drink indoors at a bar at least once a week (8 percent) or less often but occasionally (7 percent). And tens of millions of Americans work in close proximity to others while not wearing a mask at least once a week (19 percent) or less often but occasionally (8 percent).
And those are just people who are willing to admit it. While fewer than 1 in 5 registered voters say they have neglected to practice social distancing (18 percent) or wear a mask (18 percent) “when it would have been appropriate,” more than two-thirds say they have seen others in their community neglect to practice social distancing (70 percent) or wear a mask (71 percent) in similar situations.
As President Trump himself put it Monday, “People are tired of COVID. I have these huge rallies. People are saying, ‘Whatever. Just leave us alone.’”
The result is predictable: yet another surge like the one we’re suffering through now.
This isn’t just an American issue. Sustained springtime lockdowns across Europe suppressed the virus to low, seemingly manageable levels. For a while, it looked as if the continent had things under control. But then too much pre-pandemic normal crept back into daily life — the indoor meals, the maskless gatherings. Slowly but surely, the virus began to spread. Now, for the first time since March, Europe is averaging more daily cases per capita than the U.S.
America was less patient and more polarized than Europe, which is why we experienced a summer peak across the Sun Belt and are currently enduring our third surge instead of our second. But either way, the bad news is the same: In the absence of a safe, effective, widely administered vaccine, normal is not OK.
The good news is that what is OK — what has already been shown to keep low caseloads low and quickly contain big outbreaks — is something that looks a lot more like normal than like lockdown: a consistent routine of indoor masks and outdoor distancing that doesn’t require anyone to cower at home or avoid patronizing local businesses.
Unfortunately, America is now barreling at a rate of 60,000 new daily cases toward an indoor, cold-weather, mealtime holiday seemingly tailor-made to further spread the virus — and for understandable (if worrisome) reasons, a huge number of Americans are planning to celebrate it just as they normally would.
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,583 U.S. registered voters interviewed online from Oct. 16 to 18. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 presidential vote, registration status, geographic region and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S registered voters. The margin of error is approximately 4 percent.
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