Av Gordon cautiously hosted his turkey dinner in the dining room Thursday instead of celebrating outdoors. But the second Thanksgiving during the COVID-19 pandemic was far from the normal festivity.
Last year, Gordon and his family huddled six feet apart on his Plymouth driveway to swap to-go dishes before toasting one another in a defining 2020 way: from their own homes over Zoom. But this year, the three generations — all vaccinated — sat inside at three tables, donning masks in between passing potatoes and pies.
"I guess it's important to be thankful we're further than we were last year," said Gordon's daughter, Abbe Bernstein, 55, of Plymouth. "We're just not as far as we thought we'd be."
Like people across the country, Minnesotans are trying to balance the continued threat of the coronavirus with safely gathering again for the second holiday season.
In Minnesota, emergency rooms are backed up and COVID-19 cases are surging, with the state nearing last year's pandemic peak of hospitalizations in late November. More than 9,200 Minnesotans have died of COVID-19 complications.
But there are some bright spots: Last week, the CDC signed off on booster shots for all Americans 18 and older and Minnesota ranks second among states for adults who have received booster shots. More than 64% of Minnesotans age 5 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the health department.
For Gordon and his family, there are reasons to be grateful, too.
No one in the family has been sick with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and things have slowly returned to a new normal. Kids restarted soccer tournaments and in-person high school classes, albeit wearing masks. Some of the adults have resumed working at the office instead of at home. They've warily attended some plays and concerts again. Bernstein even packed away her cloth masks during the summer when cases dipped and Americans hoped the worst was over.
"We had all heard that as soon as winter sets in, things are going to get worse but somehow I didn't believe it. It's scary," Gordon said.
With the fast-moving delta variant driving up COVID cases, the family mulled reverting back to an outdoor party while hosting 19 people from 11 households. Instead, they followed CDC guidelines for holiday celebrations with multiple households, adding extra precautions.
The teens and 20-somethings who hadn't yet received their booster shot took rapid COVID-19 tests Thursday before dinner and sat at their own table while adults 70 and older dined at a separate table. They skipped appetizers to minimize mingling without masks. And a nearby door was propped open to boost air circulation despite the chilly 16-degree night.
"I'd rather everybody mingle but everything just has to be different this year," Gordon said from the senior table. "I'm just thankful I have my family around me."
As guests arrived clutching containers of salad and side dishes, someone called out for a thermometer.
"For a person or a turkey?" another replied in jest.
Thanksgiving comes with special rituals for many Americans. For the Gordon family, it's a chance to gather for a joyful feast and honor Gordon's late wife, Bari Gordon, on her favorite holiday.
Last year, a month before Thanksgiving, the family held Bari's funeral over Zoom, just like they had celebrated Passover. They nixed family hugs and hosted their scaled back Thanksgiving driveway party, one of many family events held outdoors before vaccines were available.
"It was all fragmented," said Gordon's daughter, Juli Olson, 51, of Maple Grove. "It was all part of the new normal."
This year, the family is still skipping Black Friday shopping, but some of the treasured holiday traditions are coming back. They'll gather for a smaller Hanukkah celebration for the first time since 2019 and are starting to make 2022 travel plans.
On Thursday, along with a spread of the typical turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, the family assembled a cornucopia centerpiece of fresh vegetables just like Bari had done for years, made her usual stuffed celery and passed around her customary foil-wrapped chocolate turkeys — this time, sporting homemade blue mini masks.
It wasn't the massive party Bari had always planned, inviting over co-workers or stray roommates with nowhere to go for the holiday. But in many ways it looked like the typical feast: teens on their phones, adults chattering about work and Bernstein lamenting the mass of leftover potatoes.
"It's better than the driveway," Olson said of the event. "Things are better. Things are looking up."