To keep Thanksgiving gatherings safe, guests must consider their health before they accept an invitation. (TNS Photo)

It’s not Halloween or Christmas that makes the Garza household come alive. It’s Thanksgiving.

The three brothers in their 20s and their mom, Linda, look forward to the holiday for two reasons; “because they have food and football.”

Every year, Garza gathers with her family and parents to cook while her boys enjoy the game. Not this year. Only the kids and the single mom will be getting together — it’s a compromise.

Like the Garza family, Rio Grande Valley residents have been contending with two voices for eight months — health officials advising against gatherings and human nature’s bending toward connection. Thanksgiving, a season celebrating the union of peoples, will place more weight on that scale already tilting in favor of congregating.

Health officials, including Cameron County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo, continue to urge complete isolation for people at high risk for disease, especially as cases continue rising. But they know many will still give into the tradition.

Preparations for this year should include plans to mitigate the risk of contagion.

For Linda Garza, that means they’re cutting down on the households getting together, and keeping it to just her children. A friend of hers is splitting up the parties; seating them in different parts of the house, at different times of the day, and disinfecting in between.

“You don’t normally mingle households, and now you’re going to. So, you’re going to take on all of the risk that they bring with them,” Castillo said.

Guests must consider their health before they accept an invitation. The best practice is to be in isolation, or relative isolation, for 10 days before the day.

Should any symptoms — fever, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, or loss of smell or taste — show up that day or right before it, Castillo said it would be best to skip the gathering.

“If you all of a sudden have problems with cold-like symptoms, don’t think it’s just a cold.

Sometimes the test is negative the first day the person is sick,” the doctor said.

Those who have tested positive for the virus may want to keep from participating, depending on how long it’s been since they started experiencing symptoms.

Some people are still contagious beyond the recommended 10 days. “So, if a person tested positive for COVID and on day nine they’re feeling much better, that’s not good enough,” Castillo said.

There’s two main ways the virus can spread: over the air through droplets and through surfaces.

Whittling down the number of invited guests is key, but if the party has grown to include many people, Castillo wants the public to consider the worst-case scenario.

“When you think about a Thanksgiving dinner with the whole family around the table, without masks and eating close together — that’s a perfect recipe for spreading the virus,” he said.

If the tables can be set outdoors, that will help maintain a healthy air flow. Otherwise, Castillo encourages opening windows to allow for better circulation.

For families who will be staying indoors and who could manage it, the doctor advises seating guests by households in separate tables six feet apart.

Before the food is ready, many may want to sit and catch up. People may be tempted to lower their guards, literally, during the joyous celebration harkening back to a time before the pandemic. That can come with serious consequences.

“If one of those people has the virus, and then let’s say they’re doing things that even puts more virus out there like laughing, singing, shouting, talking loud, having fun — sound familiar? — it puts more virus into the air,” Castillo said.

The CDC recommends that only person serve food to the rest of the family during Thanksgiving to avoid cross contamination on serving spoons. (TNS Photo)

The table spacing, air flow and masks will reduce the virus build up in the air, but there are different methods encouraged to protect against its spread on surfaces.

Limiting physical contact like hugs, kisses and handshakes will be a challenge, but there’s less obvious ways of contracting COVID-19.

“Imagine you have a gathering of 10 people and everybody is using the same guest bathroom,” Castillo said. “That door handle to go into the bathroom is now contaminated. Chances are you’re not going to be wiping down the surfaces every time you do that.”

Constant hand-washing is encouraged, so is a tally of surfaces touched such as the bowl of mashed potatoes or the tongs used to grab slices of ham. It’s recommended to have one designated person serving the food and limiting contact of high-traffic surfaces.

“I’m afraid,” Linda Garza said as she considered her sons and their health during the long pandemic. She’s been strict with them, telling them not to go out and to stay healthy. On Thanksgiving, health will be something families like theirs will be grateful to celebrate.

“It’s not about shaming, but if we all tried to do better, we would have less illness,” Castillo said, encouraging a safe holiday.