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From Jericho football to turkey trots: An untraditional Thanksgiving during COVID-19

Food drives were held on Long Island on Saturday, in Oceanside and Shirley, to help families in need for Thanksgiving. Credit: Newsday / John Conrad Williams Jr.; Morgan Campbell

Thanksgiving on Long Island is more than overfilled plates of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. It's decades-old traditions of football games with old friends, turkey trots with neighbors and afternoons serving meals to the less fortunate.

But while the COVID-19 pandemic has made these time-honored events somewhat untraditional this year, organizers say they're adjusting with the times of strict safety precautions and making the best of an unusual situation.

The game goes on

For 40 consecutive years, a group of old friends from Jericho High School's class of 1979 have gathered on Thanksgiving to play football, catch-up and drink bourbon. They've played through rain, snow and mud and endured broken bones and torn ACLs.

So would they let a pandemic get in the way of the annual Turkey Bowl?

"In the name of tradition and getting together with good friends we are going to get out there once again this year," said John Ferrara, a CPA from River Vale, New Jersey, who helps organize the event. "We will keep it abbreviated but keep with tradition. We're not going to let COVID get in the way."

Masks and gloves will be required and anyone feeling sick will be urged not to participate. And the game will be two-hand touch rather than tackle — a reflection less of the pandemic and more on the fact that the players are now in their late-50s.

Ferrara said the game has bonded the group for four decades.

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"It's important to keep some normalcy in our lives and to keep those bonds," he said. "And it's important to not let this thing get the best of us."

Thanksgiving to go

Long Island soup kitchens, which can serve hundreds of hungry families on Thanksgiving, are modifying their operations this year, sending families home with a traditional meal to go.

It's a tough call for many nonprofits. So many families have suffered financial hardships during the pandemic and are struggling to get by. But large crowds gathering inside, often with older and vulnerable volunteers, can be a deadly combination.

"The need is definitely there," said Vito Colletti, president of the Mercy Soup Kitchen, which in previous years would serve about 100 Thanksgiving meals at their Wyandanch facility. "So we are making turkey dinners with all the trimming and packing it to go."

At the Mary Brennan INN in Hempstead, the largest soup kitchen on Long Island, volunteers and staff would normally make a hot meal for up to 400 guests Thanksgiving Day.

Instead, this year, the facility has distributed 450 turkeys and Thanksgiving fixing bags of nonperishable side dishes — with more to be distributed in the days leading up to the holiday, said Dana Lopez, a spokeswoman for the facility.

On Thanksgiving Day, the INN will close its doors for the first time.

"It pains us to do so, but in the effort of keeping everyone safe, this year it must be done," Lopez said.

Hot to trot

From Port Washington to Montauk, Thanksgiving runners, bundled up in coats and hats, take to the streets in turkey trots and 5Ks to raise money for charity.

But with virtually all large gatherings canceled because of COVID, organizers of events in Bayville, Massapequa, Garden City, Kings Park, Blue Point and Huntington are making turkey trots virtual this year.

The revised races allow participants to walk or run the route during a particular time period, often a week or two leading up to Thanksgiving.

"It's certainly different for us," said Alice Marie Rorke, executive director of the Townwide Fund of Huntington, which organizes the annual Thanks4Giving four-mile run. "But the bottom line is it's not about the run. It's about raising money to help people in need."

In a typical year, more than 2,000 residents compete in the Huntington race and raise more than $40,000 to support needy local families. Rorke expects about half the number of participants this year.

A handful of races will continue in-person, including in Oyster Bay where masks and social distancing guidelines will be enforced and staggered start times will help reduce large crowds.

Birds in a basket

More than 160 baskets lined the cafeteria of Oceanside High School last week, packed with frozen turkeys, stuffing, yams, canned gravy and hot cocoa — all ready to be delivered Saturday to needy and homebound families beforeThanksgiving.

The Oceanside Turkey Shoot dates back 34 years.

The school and Oceanside Community Service, a nonprofit that provides meals and medical assistance, collect food donations from across the community. Last week, 120 students spent their afternoons assembling the 25-pound baskets, which can serve six people, and writing cards to recipients.

"Everyone is involved in this event," said Lisa Comuniello, an Oceanside math teacher and student project coordinator. "You have your students, staff, custodians, security … Everyone in the community rallies."

In previous years, students would accompany teachers and volunteers as they deliver the care packages but the pandemic forced organizers to scrap those plans. Delivery will now be a solo, contactless operation.

Comuniello said the event is a learning experience for students who get a firsthand glimpse of the struggles some families face.

"It's all about making sure no family in Oceanside is hungry for the holidays," she said. "And that's why this is something I would hate to give up because there are so many families that need this. They deserve to have a nice meal."

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