Whether you’re thinking of declining an invitation to a holiday gathering or you feel you should cancel one you were planning to host, experts say being straightforward but graceful is the best approach. Jasmina007 / Getty Images
  • As COVID-19 cases surge across the country, you may be rethinking your Thanksgiving plans.
  • Turning down an invite to a Thanksgiving gathering isn’t easy, but there are ways to decline gracefully.
  • If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, but want to set some guidelines, being straightforward with your guests is the best approach.

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, deciding whether or not to celebrate Thanksgiving with people outside of your living quarters is difficult.

In its guidelines for Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that in addition to avoiding travel, people should avoid attending large indoor gatherings with those from outside of their household.

“The goal here is to think about your own health and safety and protect yourself. So having Thanksgiving away from extended family or friends, or just celebrating it in your own home without any additional company is a great way to stay ahead of the pandemic,” Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, told Healthline.

However, the decision to turn down a Thanksgiving invite isn’t always easy. If you feel less safe about your holiday plans, but aren’t quite sure how to say “no,” experts share some insight.

Say ‘no’ gracefully

When telling a friend or family member that you’re not going to attend Thanksgiving dinner, Serani suggests expressing your appreciation for the invite first, then explaining your concerns, and closing with your decision.

However, Elaine Swann, etiquette expert, says avoid going into too much detail about why you aren’t attending.

“It can cause friction if you share too much detail about the pandemic and your thoughts around it because not everybody sees eye-to-eye on the situation,” she told Healthline.

Swann suggests stating something short and simple like:

“I’m not going to be able to join you all this year, but I’m looking forward to a time when we can get together again.”

Adding in a line such as, “I want to make sure I do my part to protect you” can soften the blow, added Swann.

By going into more detail about why you think it’s unsafe or risky to gather because of COVID-19, she says it can come across as you suggesting that the host isn’t following the guidelines.

“You don’t want to chastise them for planning to get together. Etiquette is more about putting others at ease and being respectful of their feelings,” Swann said.

To ensure the host and attendees know they’re missed, consider sending something for the party.

“You can say that you want to send over a dessert or a bottle of wine that you usually bring and utilize a store, restaurant, or delivery service near the host’s house,” Swann said.

Sending money is also an option.

“Tell them, ‘Drinks are on me to contribute to a great time. I just sent you money via Zelle.’ Now, they may be disappointed you’re not coming, but most likely they’ll appreciate your [gesture],” said Swann.

Once you decline the invite, Serani says expect to feel sadness or guilt, but stay firm in your decision.

“To not feel guilt or cause friction when you set a boundary is unrealistic. Instead, give yourself permission to feel bad, but remember that you’re self-caring and being mindful about your health. And that’s worth being proud of even if you feel a bit guilty about it,” said Serani.

If others make you feel bad, ashamed, or guilty about not joining them, she says to recognize that their hurt may reflect their misunderstanding or views about the risk of COVID-19.  

How to ask a host to alter their plans

If you’re willing to attend the Thanksgiving party with some safety measures in place, simply asking the host if guidelines will be followed before you RSVP is a good idea.

“Now is the time for people to speak up and do what’s necessary to protect themselves. You don’t have to tell the person what’s on your mind and what your standards are. You can just ask, ‘Will we be practicing social distancing?’ or ‘Will we be required to follow COVID guidelines?’ This way it doesn’t sound like you are on one side or the other,” said Swann.

If you’re comfortable enough with the host, be straightforward and tell them that you prefer the gathering is outside because indoor air and close proximity raises the risk for transmission of COVID-19.

“If you live in warm weather or can use fire pits, tents, or propane heaters, you can fight the chill November brings,” said Serani.

How hosts can cancel on guests

If you were set to host Thanksgiving dinner but feel it’s no longer safe, tell your guests the truth.

“Let guests know that while you were looking forward to the great food, conversation, and company, it feels too risky to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. [If] anyone minimizes, mocks, or is angry about your decision, try not to personalize it,” said Serani.

Swann suggests using the following phrase:

“I’m going to have to cancel our time together. Due to COVID, I want to do everything I can to protect you, so we won’t be having the party.”

Wrapping up with a sense of hope can soften the disappointment. Swann suggests the following sentiments.

  • “We’ll miss you at Thanksgiving, but here’s to hoping to see you at Easter.”
  • “Here’s to the next time we can get together.”
  • “Here’s to spring bringing new things.”

Organizing a virtual get-together where everyone stays in their own home and cooks their own meal is another way to show guests you wish the circumstances were different.

“A scheduled FaceTime or Zoom meeting to talk, share, and connect can make the day feel more festive,” Serani said.

Swann agrees but recommends designating a time near the start of the party to connect virtually.

“It might be best to connect before everyone is singing and dancing and seeing them makes you miss being there,” she said.

How to tell guests the plans have changed

If you still plan on hosting but want to set some guidelines, send your guests a note or call them personally to tell them that you plan on having Thanksgiving outdoors and want everyone to wear masks.

Asking out-of-town guests to quarantine for several days before the gathering is another precautionary measure.

“I like to use science and honesty when I talk with family and friends. So, I’ve told guests that in addition to practicing gratitude and thankfulness on Thanksgiving, we will also be inviting science to our gathering,” said Serani.

However, Swann says be sure to give guests a way out.

“You can say, ‘If this is something you are not comfortable with, I certainly respect that and I’d be alright if you decide not to come.’ And do actually respect their decision. Know some people are just being cautious,” she said.

To lighten the mood when it’s time to celebrate, think of ways to have fun.

For instance, Swann is hosting a Thanksgiving gathering. While she and her family have stayed in a social bubble, she invited others who she knows have been quarantining too.

“We’re being creative with COVID-19 tests. We’re having everyone take a COVID test before they come and for every COVID test they bring, they get to put it into a drawing. Then we’re going to pick one winner who will get a $75 gift card,” she said.

Whether you end up celebrating with one person or a few, making the most of a difficult situation can help brighten the day.

“Take advantage of what the day actually is about — thanksgiving — and write down what you are thankful for today,” said Swann. “Then, remember that the thing that helps lift our spirit is hope and faith in our future and that we will get through this and be able to see one another again.”


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