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Some Southside families say they will serve up caution on Thanksgiving
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Some Southside families say they will serve up caution on Thanksgiving

The warnings from the CDC and others have caused concern about how to combat the spread of COVID-19 while also celebrating traditionally.


Thanksgiving always has been “a very special day” for Joe and Betty Gillispie of Laurel Park. She has 58 years’ worth of scrapbooks to prove it.

However, this time, the couple will just celebrate together, alone. They are “staying away from everyone,” Betty Gillispie said.

Her friends are in the same boat, also celebrating with only a few people.

“Sad, but what can you do?” she said.

However, the Gillispies and their friends seem to be the exceptions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled a lot of events during the past year, but Thanksgiving seems to be one people want to hold onto — although in more limited ways than before.

Thursday evening, just a week before Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the American public that people should not visit others for Thanksgiving — not even members of their immediate families — because the increasing spread of the coronavirus is at an all-time high and visiting would only spread it more.

Instead, the CDC cautioned, people only should celebrate the holiday with members of their households. They defined that as people who have been living together for at least 14 days.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam a few days earlier had made similar suggestions because he was seeing Virginia’s cases rise significantly — a daily average almost double what it was earlier this month — and noted how even worse the numbers were in other parts of the country.

Virginia Department of Health spokesperson Nancy Bell said, “We hope people will be especially careful as we head into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays where social gathering usually is the norm. In the health district we have, unfortunately, seen surges in COVID cases after holidays like Mother’s Day and Independence Day.

“As college students typically return for the fall and winter holidays, we need to be especially careful, as COVID infections in other areas can be transmitted to our community by travelers.”

The stories area people tell about their plans appear to mirror the results of a national survey by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, which showed that nearly 2 in 5 people say they probably would attend a gathering with more than 10 people and a third do not plan to ask guests to wear masks.

“There is no place like home, but during these times, you may have to live from your great memories,” Debbie McKinney said.

Ending traditions

This pandemic year probably will be the final moments of what has been a traditional Smith family Thanksgiving, said Myron Smith of Martinsville and Richmond.

“Attendance was already dwindling,” he said. “I am pretty sure 2019 was the last family gathering for the Smiths, at least until the next funeral.”

This will be the first year since he was born that he will not to be part of the big family gathering, he said.

Two of Jim Pence’s three daughters are coming in from out of town, one from Texas and the other from Virginia Military Academy. The third still lives at home.

“Since they have not contracted the disease, or knowingly made anyone sick, we feel things are good, but we are forgoing the larger in- law gathering this year,” said Pence, a Henry County resident.

However, any gathering beyond immediate family will be sacrificed “so we can enjoy future ones with everyone safe and well.”

Gael and Smith Chaney of Smith Mountain Lake, on the other hand, will spend this one without their children.

“Our children were all relieved when I suggested it would be safer if they stayed home, especially the pregnant daughter-in-law who said her doctor would probably tell her not to attend,” Gail Chaney said.

“After months of dining for two,” the couple will be joined only by her brother, she said.

Me Cartwright of Martinsville said she and her daughter are planning a non-traditional Thanksgiving in more than just the pandemic restrictions. Her daughter has asked for a Japanese meal instead of the traditional American spread in honor of a grandmother, Emiko Griffin (who was a secretary for Gen. Douglas MacArthur during World War II).

However, a normal Cartwright Thanksgiving would feature turkey and the traditional side dishes. That’s such as strong tradition that Cartwright cooked right up until her daughter was born, then popped the turkey into the oven to cook as soon as she and her baby came home from the hospital.

“No rest for moms,” she said.

Becky Farrar of Union Hall said her Thanksgiving dinner would be much like before, “with all the traditional turkey, stuffing, gravy, multiple sides and many favorite desserts,” for the six adults and four grandchildren. However, this year, there will be no eating out and no shopping — “just us, with plenty of food and drink and time for games and planning Christmas.”

Outdoors options

Darlene Thielman, who recently moved back to Southside from Atlanta, is not expecting company, but she’s cooking “the entire Thanksgiving spread” and will have take-home meals for any friends or family who drop by.

The most visiting there would be would be out in the yard, if the weather allows it.

Some local families are planning to eat with others outdoors, although that seems to require a trip down South to accomplish.

Cindy Edgerton of Rangeley is going with a group of eight to Bluffton, S.C., “where it will be warm enough to dine and visit outdoors. We’ll have non-traditional food, seafood pasta.”

Thomas and Stuart Webster of Martinsville are heading to the family home in Cherry Grove Beach, S.C., to be joined by their son, daughter-in-law and grandson.

This “low key” family holiday, which will include fishing, golf and celebrating the baby’s ninth-month birthday, will be for “just us,” they said.

Darlene and Steve Isom of Bassett will be traveling to her sister’s house near Charlotte, N.C. There will be only six people, and each couple have been assigned part of the meal, she said.

“Being careful, eating together and enjoying time with family” is their bottom line.

Dangerous times

Meanwhile, Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, the Wexner Center’s chief quality and patient safety officer, warned that Thanksgiving celebrations could make families vulnerable to the disease.

“When you’re gathered together around the table, engaged in conversation, sitting less than six feet apart with your masks down, even in a small group, that’s when the spread of this virus can really happen,” he stated in a release.

Numbers already are high in the West Piedmont Health District of the VDH, with 4,155 cases, 105 deaths (three more on Saturday Friday) and 354 hospitalizations. The testing positivity rate is 14.6% of nearly 32,500 tests.

In the Pittsylvania County-Danville Health District there have been 3,092 cases, 70 deaths — two on Saturday — and 243 hospitalized. That area has a 8.7% 7-day positivity on 36,868 tests.

Statewide there are 215,679 cases, with 3,938 deaths and 14,017 hospitalizations and a 7-day testing positivity rate of 7.1%.

If people are hosting in-person celebrations, Gonsenhauser recommends having a plan and communicating that plan to guests. He urges people to wear masks at all times, separate seating arrangements by household and having only one or two people serve the food. If people are taking their holiday meal outdoors, he suggests people follow the same precautions they would if they were indoors. If people have out-of-town guests coming, Gonsenhauser recommends staying up to date with COVID-19 rates in both areas.

“If you have someone in your household who’s high risk, and you’re in a low incidence area,” he said, “you’re going to want to think twice about having a celebration where people are coming from an area where there’s a lot of virus in the community.”

Holly Kozelsky reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at

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