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OP-ED: To save lives, let's postpone Thanksgiving

Michael Hiltzik
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
A new national survey by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center shows many Americans plan on attending large holiday gatherings despite spiking COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Has there ever been a year before this one when the coming of a major national holiday betokens not joy, but sickness and death?

Public health authorities and responsible political leaders are being kept up at night by visions of family gatherings on Thanksgiving Day bringing together healthy people with their sick relatives, turning this traditional celebration into a coast-to-coast superspreader event.

Calculate the established incubation period for the coronavirus and the course of COVID-19 symptoms, and we're talking about hospitalizations and lethal outcomes peaking just in time for Christmas.

Yet a simple path to avert this prospect is staring us in the face: Let's postpone Thanksgiving.

I'm not talking about putting off the holiday for now for some vague point in the future, but rather putting it off for a date certain in the spring. I have a date in mind, which I'll unveil in a moment.

All over the map: The date of Thanksgiving is eminently portable. It's the most important U.S. holiday that isn't tied to a religious calendar. There's nothing sacrosanct about the date. Indeed, over the decades it's been moved around at the whim of presidents and Congress.

That's happened without regard to the tradition ostensibly started by the Pilgrims, whose first thanksgiving feast, which apparently occurred after rains brought relief from a long drought, is thought to have occurred on July 30, 1623. The current designation of the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving wasn't fixed by federal law until 1941, and some states continued to celebrate the holiday on the last Thursday of the month well into the 1950s.

Obviously, a formal, officially prescribed postponement of Thanksgiving Day isn't possible at this stage, with the holiday due to arrive in a week and the federal government paralyzed, President Donald Trump locked in a catatonic post-election stupor.

That leaves President-elect Joe Biden to take the reins. He can't do anything official just yet, but he can present the postponement of Thanksgiving as the curtain-raiser to his program for fighting the pandemic. No doubt he'd come under fire from political adversaries — one can imagine the right-wing fever swamp of Fox News and OANN, etc., launching a dimwitted "Biden canceled Thanksgiving!" meme — but less so if he proposes a specific new date.

The notion of giving up on Thanksgiving entirely has begun to penetrate the public discourse. The Atlantic's James Hamblin proposes to simply cancel Thanksgiving. He observes that public health agencies are urging people not to hold large gatherings, and acknowledges that "Telling people not to gather for a holiday is, of course, an unpopular message."

But Hamblin makes the mistake of not offering an alternative option.

Thanksgiving 2.0: Humans function best when they have a goal and a deadline. So what should the new date be?

For several sound reasons, I propose Thursday, April 29.

To begin with, that date would mark the 100th day of the Biden administration, placing a capstone on a period of activity that has become, ever since Franklin Roosevelt's day, the first milestone in every new administration.

This gives Biden and the country more than three months to crush the virus through concerted action. A mask mandate and a program of moral suasion aimed at social distancing will be more palatable for the mass of Americans if a new Thanksgiving beckons at the end of the ordeal. By then, if science and technology cooperate, we might even have one or more effective vaccines in production and already being rolled out to the most vulnerable populations. That might give us something concrete to be thankful for.

By the 29th, April should be in its going-out-like-a-lamb stage. Spring will be upon us, we'll be six weeks into daylight saving time, so the days will seem longer and the most susceptible among us will have shed the seasonal affective disorders that make winter seem so bleak.

November is overrated: What will we be giving up by not giving thanks in November? Not much. Let's be honest: Late-November Thanksgiving is more often than not an inconvenient pain in the prat. Family members haul themselves long distances, often halfway across the country, only a month before they have to do it all over again for Christmas.

The weather is dangerously willful; one snowstorm in Denver during Thanksgiving week can cause hundreds of flight delays and cancellations from Maine to San Diego. Fog banks and ice storms cause chain collisions involving scores, even hundreds, of cars. Who really loves traveling for Thanksgiving?

It's worse this year. The prospect of gathering for Thanksgiving is producing not happy anticipation, but trepidation. We'll be thinking, who at this table is asymptomatically contagious? Is cousin Fred's sniffle just an allergy, as he claims, or the harbinger of death? I can't believe I actually risked my life to get on a plane just to hear granddad bitch about Trump's losing a stolen election. And so on.

It's true that some Thanksgiving traditions can't easily be postponed on short notice. The National Football League probably can't reschedule its Thanksgiving Day games, but let's face it — Thanksgiving Day football games generally stink anyway. This year, one of the three games will feature an as-yet undefeated team, but the other two are contests among four teams averaging 2.5 wins each, all vying for worst-in-division honors.

Corporate calendars and union contracts may mandate Thanksgiving Day off, but nothing would keep employers from adding a new Thanksgiving to their calendars in April. Retailers may miss out on Black Friday sales, but Black Friday may be pretty grim this year anyway, what with families struggling from the expiration of pandemic relief. If Biden can push a new relief bill past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's obstructionism, family resources might be bolstered in time for combined Thanksgiving/ Memorial Day sales campaigns in April and May.

Nothing can keep this year's Thanksgiving from having a sepulchral tone for thousands of Americans. As many as a quarter-million families will be marking the occasion with one or more permanently empty seats around the table, and many thousands more will be thinking not about digging into the turkey but about a loved one in the ICU. It's impossible to calculate how many family plans for Thanksgiving have been canceled, but in my small family alone the number is three.

But there's light at the end of the tunnel, and we should look ahead. The watchword for Thanksgiving this year should be, "No, don't bother coming down. But we'll see you in April — after all, it's not that far away."

— Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.