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One Philly resident wrestled with the idea for a week before she worked up the nerve to cancel Thanksgiving plans. Another felt lucky to have her pregnancy to bolster her arguments for staying home. A third felt a huge weight lift when someone else finally started the conversation.

“I actually think it was my husband’s cousin who sent the text: ‘Zoom Thanksgiving?’” said Penn prof Rinad Beidas, who lives in Fitler Square. “Everyone was like, ‘Yes, that sounds about right.’”

As coronavirus cases spike and COVID-related hospitalizations rise, city health officials are imploring Philadelphians to cancel holiday plans — especially group gatherings that involve multiple households.

“We are not going to get past this epidemic by Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas,” said Health Commissioner Tom Farley. “Family gatherings right now are simply very dangerous.”

He recommended that Mayor Jim Kenney institute the current ban on indoor dining and close theaters and gyms because the virus is “a little bit everywhere” he said, but informal social get-togethers with food and drink is where most of the spread appears to be occurring.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to forgo your winter traditions, or tell friends and relatives you just won’t be showing up.

Manayunk resident Rebeca Cruz-Esteves usually spends Thanksgiving with her uncles in New York City, using the occasion to memorialize her aunt, who died two years ago. Currently pregnant and two weeks from her due date, she was thankful for she had the equivalent of a doctor’s note.

“The hospital telling us to quarantine was really helpful,” said Cruz-Esteves, 32. “We kind of blamed it on that.”

It’s a big enough point of contention that Philadelphia family therapist Mary May has set up three-way Zoom calls with young adults and their parents to help mediate the cancellation conversation.

“It’s hard when you’re breaking rituals,” May said. “There has been anger and arguments.”

Dr. Tiffany Montgomery is a nurse in the labor and delivery at Einstein, so she intimately understands the risk of overflowing the city’s hospitals.

Still, she had longstanding plans for which she was especially excited. A friend from college who lives in California was planning to bring her daughter to Philly. Montgomery was going to accompany them on an East Coast road trip, touring colleges for the high school sophomore.

“I just finally came out and said, ‘No, don’t come here. Cancel the ticket,’” said Montgomery, 38. “She kept saying, ‘Aw man, are you sure?’ She was disappointed. She thought I would change my mind.”

Though it’s the safest thing to do, canceling holiday plans is easier said than done. Here are some tips from those who’ve already done it.

Tell them sooner rather than later

Especially if your relatives or friends are traveling from afar, it’s really better to cut the cord early. Most plane tickets are exchangeable these days, so hopefully they’ll understand.

“You don’t want to get people’s hopes up and make them believe things are going according to plan, and then all of a sudden flip the script on them,” said Einstein nurse Montgomery.

Tiffany Montgomery and the friends she expected to be hanging out with for Thanksgiving, in happier days Credit: Courtesy Tiffany Montgomery

Make it about how much you care

Your family is probably going to feel hurt. So when you’re having the conversation, center your love for them and validate their feelings. That’s what Penn researcher Beidas did when she had to reject her parents.

“Use ‘I’ statements like we learned in kindergarten: ‘I don’t feel comfortable, and it’s really important to me that I keep you safe,” Beidas suggested. “‘I’m sorry this is disappointing, and I’m really looking forward to next year.’”

If they get angry, say you’ll call back later

Family therapist May has seen these conversations blow up. If your family has hot-headed members, let them know at the beginning of the call that if they raise their voice, you’re going to hang up and call back.

“You simply end the phone call,” May recommended. “You’re in charge of your emotions. Take the lead on what energy you can take in.”

Try them by text in a few hours — or even the next day — and you might get a more level response.

Do a Zoom Thanksgiving! With a fun activity!

Sorry, but it’s a real option.

If your fam is bummed to miss the get-together, suggest a virtual version instead. Montgomery did an early virtual Thanksgiving with some friends from church and actually enjoyed it.

“Like a Secret Santa, we picked names and secretly sent each other meals,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t know who it was from. We all ate them together and talked about what we were thankful for.”

If you don’t want to spend the whole meal staring at a screen, you can suggest each separate household make one common dish or cocktail — then meet up virtually to share it together.

Trade the turkey for something totally different

Or go for the total opposite end of the spectrum: Don’t try to make Nov. 26, 2020 feel like a normal Thanksgiving. Just do something else.

As they wait for their baby, Cruz-Esteves and her fiance aren’t even going to try to cook a traditional meal. They’re gonna grab takeout from Whole Foods, heat it up at home and get a head start on decorating for Christmas.

Plan an exciting future adventure

In Montgomery’s case, canceling Thanksgiving meant putting off her goddaughter’s college road trip. To make it up to her, she promised they’d do it over the summer instead — and it’d be more fun in the warmer weather, anyway.

“As a 14 year old I wouldn’t expect her to understand or agree with the decisions we made,” Montgomery said. “I actually told her, ‘I would rather have you alive and see you next year than to have something horrible happen to you or me.’”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...