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A Zoom Thanksgiving: Local families pare back holiday plans as COVID cases soar


Maureen Feighan   | The Detroit News

Surging COVID-19 cases and tighter state restrictions are shrinking Thanksgiving plans for families across Metro Detroit as they prepare for a quieter holiday with fewer guests and a break with traditions. 

Many are paring back their usual Thanksgiving gatherings, incorporating Zoom calls with family instead or headingoutdoors, even if just for a little bit. A popular meme being shared on social media says "A Zoom Thanksgiving is better than an ICU Christmas."

Rather than cooking, some families are ordering carryout meals to support struggling local restaurants. And thousands will be in front of the TV to watch America's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit, a beloved tradition for millions, since spectators aren't allowed this year. Some have even rented large tents to hold outdoor celebrations with heat lamps.

"It’s kind of surreal but at the same time we’ve had all this time to get used to this," said Tracey Garcia of Farmington Hills, who usually hosts more than a dozen family members at her home for Thanksgiving but instead will have dinner this year with just her husband, Al.

But after dinner, the Garcias plan to have dessert outdoors, her apple crumble-top pie and chocolate fluff pie, on the patio with two of their adult daughters and their boyfriends. They have three heat lamps and two large tables so everyone can spread out. Tracey will put desserts on individual plates so there's less contact with everyone. 

"Even if they just come over for half an hour we'll get to see them," said Tracey, an interior designer. "... It's better than nothing."

The holiday will likely be a warmup to scaled back Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations as the pandemic forces families to rethink certain traditions. It comes as COVID cases soar in Michigan, this month hitting their highest levels of new cases since the pandemic started in March. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has asked families to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to no more than two households to limit the spread of COVID.

Marnie Hofran of West Bloomfield lives in the same subdivision as her parents, but instead of celebrating the holiday together she and her husband Jeremy and their two teen daughters will do a Zoom call with them and other relatives on Thanksgiving. And extended family members who often travel from Chicago and California to Michigan for the holiday are staying put.

"No one was comfortable traveling during this," said Hofran, who has a sister in California. "Even if they were, for the Chicago relatives, where are they staying? And what was everyone’s comfort level and all that? And quarantining and all of that?"

Still, not everyone plans to abide by Whitmer's recommendations for Thanksgiving, which can't be enforced. 

"I'm not going to stop LIVING so she (Whitmer) can promote doom and gloom," said Marty Bear, a Michigan resident, on Twitter. "We cannot be forced to be non-social creatures. It's not in our DNA."

But many families are taking extra precautions this year or have smaller gatherings.

Ingrid Tierney of Shelby Township and her extended family held an early outdoor Thanksgiving celebration in early November that even incorporated shower curtains to limit possible exposure.

They met at Tierney's mom's house in Washington Township when the weather was unusually warm and before the state's latest restrictions. Rather than sitting at two large tables as they usually do, each of the four families had a table and took turns getting food all while wearing masks. All the food was prepared in one kitchen.

"The highest risk family sat furthest away with a shower curtain attached to an umbrella separating the other families from them with an additional barrier," said Tierney. 

Traveling for the holidays

AAA estimates that 50 million people still plan to travel for the holiday nationwide, down from 55 million last year. In Michigan, the expectation is 1.6 million will travel for Thanksgiving, down 8.1% from 2019. 

“AAA acknowledges that the decision to travel is a personal one,” said Adrienne Woodland, a AAA spokeswoman, in a press release. “The CDC says staying home is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19. For those who still decide to travel, we urge you to take every precaution possible to protect yourself and others.”

For a pandemic that has already reshaped everyday life in so many ways, Thanksgiving will present the latest change.

Mary Culpepper-Rivers of Farmington Hills has been going to the Thanksgiving Day parade every year since she was 5, when her father used to put her on the top rung of a ladder "because I was the smallest so that I can see all of the action when it turns onto Warren Avenue."

Instead, she'll watch the parade on TV this year and make dinner at her home for her two sisters and another family member.

"It saddens me to know that the holiday festivities will be canceled due to the coronavirus," said Culpepper-Rivers. "I was thinking about us being outside (for the parade) and we can still social distance ourselves from others but they canceled that."

On Friday, just one day after Detroit's health officer said the parade would have to be done virtually, Tony Michaels, president and chief executive officer of The Parade Company, said they were busy "reinventing" but viewers can expect a parade on WDIV.

Michaels said they'll pre-record segments — marching bands have already been pre-recorded, for example, and more shots will be filmed this weekend — and viewers will "see something great." Gardner White is the parade's presenting sponsor, and there are 23 floats  in this year's parade, four of which are new.

"We’ve got to bring this great show to Detroit, the region, the state," said Michaels. "And that’s what we’re doing. We’re committed to doing this the right way."

Thanksgiving pre-orders

Local businesses, meanwhile, also are adjusting to the unusual year and how the holidays will be celebrated differently.

At Achatz Pies, which has locations across Michigan, staff are taking reservations for specific pickup times for pies, every half hour, to minimize crowds. Their most popular pies at Thanksgiving are pumpkin, apple and its signature Michigan 4-berry pie.

"This way, we’ll be sure we don’t have too many people in the store at once, and will help alleviate long lines that stretch outside," said manager Sarah Jacques of Achatz's Beverly Hills location, who noted that each Achatz will sell roughly 1,000 pies on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. "We have been getting more preorders so far than years past, and that helps us to plan how many pies to bake."

Even for families that plan to have some loved ones over, interior designer Jeffrey King of Jeffrey King Interiors in Birmingham said there are ways to do it, spread out. He suggests creating food stations in different rooms so people aren't congregated in one spot. 

Above all, "this is the year you just have to go with the flow," said King, who had planned to have Thanksgiving at the Birmingham Country Club before it was canceled. "You can’t get too upset about it."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com