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Thanksgiving together, or apart? How Long Island families will celebrate in the pandemic 

Melissa August-Levin of Glen Head had her Thanksgiving

Melissa August-Levin of Glen Head had her Thanksgiving celebration earlier and with fewer people this year due to COVID-19. Credit: Melissa August-Levin

Twenty-three to seven.

That’s not the score of a Thanksgiving Day football game. It’s the reduction in the number of people that Melissa August-Levin planned to host at her Glen Head home for the holiday this year due to COVID-19.

"My mother and stepfather live in Las Vegas. My brother and sister-in-law and two nieces live in New Orleans, which is where I’m from," says August-Levin, 55, a retired executive producer. "Last year, we filled up my dining room into my kitchen. It was massive and phenomenal."

This year not only did August-Levin pare the list to just her cousins who live in Laurel Hollow, she also invited them for her Cajun-style turkey and pecan pie in mid-October while it was still warm enough to celebrate outdoors. They feasted early because the cousins' older child would be coming home from college the day before Thanksgiving; nobody was comfortable with the fact that there might have been exposure on campus.

"It was really nice," August-Levin says of the day. On the actual Thanksgiving holiday, she plans to order in with her husband, Steven, 55, a retail vice president, and their children, Jack, 16, and Alexandra, 13.

Families across Long Island are altering their usual Thanksgiving routines, deciding how many guests at the table might be safe during a pandemic and striving to make Thanksgiving festive in new ways.

ACCEPTING THE CHANGE

Linda Tierney, 56, of Massapequa, director of office management for a law firm, says she’s always taught her 16-year-old twin girls not to worry about the things they can’t change. "We can’t change the pandemic, so we have to do what we can to live through it."

For Tierney, that means reducing her celebration from 21 guests to 10 and the duration of the festivities from about six hours to two. She plans to seat each nuclear family at four separate tables and serve each table separate platters "down to the butter and the salt and pepper shakers." Normally, the crowd would play card games after eating, but this year they’ll try a more distanced Thanksgiving bingo, using items such as turkey, cranberries and mashed potatoes in the gamecard squares.

Some families are waiting to see how the pandemic numbers go before making a final decision.

Right now, Angela Speranza, 60, of East Northport, is planning to host her immediate family, which includes her three grown children and her parents and mother-in-law. But she has a chronic illness — Lupus — and her parents and mother-in-law are in their 80s and 90s. "Seeing the increasing numbers has been swaying my mind that maybe this isn’t a smart thing to do," Speranza says. If they cancel the gathering, "that will be the first holiday that we will not spend together."

If it weren’t for COVID-19, La Kesha Barnes, 36, a radiology nurse from Uniondale, would have traveled to her brother’s house in Georgia for the holiday. Instead, because her grandfather is 86 and afraid to travel during the pandemic, Barnes will stay on Long Island with him. Her mother and 14-year-old daughter went to Georgia weeks ago to help with Barnes' brother’s new baby; the Georgia contingent will Skype or Zoom with Barnes and Grandpa Maurice on Thanksgiving.

"I’m a little bummed out," Barnes says. "I would like to spend my niece’s first Thanksgiving with her. The pandemic is really separating everybody. To not be together is pretty hard."

FRIENDS STAND IN

In some cases, friends are standing in for family.

Avram Greenberg of Islip, 42, a trainer for a financial firm, would have been with his sister who lives in California and his mom who lives in Florida. Instead, he and his girlfriend will host two friends for a Friendsgiving celebration. Greenberg plans to send a cupcake kit to his sister and Omaha Steaks to his mom as a Thanksgiving gift.

Liz Todaro of Selden, owner of Amazing Cakes by Liz, says that since the pandemic began, she’s seen many customers doing what Greenberg plans — send food as gifts to family members.

"They are using my company to be with each other in a way they couldn’t be physically," she says. And people who order this year are asking for smaller deserts for their smaller gatherings, she says. Amy Fischer, 47, of Farmingdale, who works in marketing in the electronics industry, is one of those whose cut her usual festivities in half. She's going from 10 people to five.

There’s one thing she’s not changing, though — the size of her turkey. While last year she had an 18-pound bird, this year she’s still going to cook one that’s at least 15. "We like leftovers," she says. "I always enjoy the food better the next day."

She adds that the pandemic isn't "taking away the feeling" of the holiday. "It’s still my favorite holiday … It’s just more intimate. You’re still grateful, and I’m grateful my loved ones are still healthy and alive. That’s what’s important."

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