Kate Shalvoy and her daughter Sara Krishtul, 2, pose at their home in Portland on Oct. 23. Shalvoy wanted to bring Sara to see her family in New York for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but the family decided not to gather for those holidays in September. Instead, they will rent a house in New York’s Catskills in November, and get tested for COVID-19 before the visit. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Brian and Sarah Allenby of Cumberland normally bring their two daughters to visit his family in New Hampshire or hers in Massachusetts during the holidays. But they worried about spreading the virus to their parents or her grandmother.

So when they got a flier in the mail for Thanksgiving turkeys, Sarah Allenby commented that they would have to order their own this year, and the choice was made.

“The potential of spreading something unknowingly to a 101-year-old grandmother is unthinkable to us,” said Brian Allenby, 39. “The risk just isn’t worth it.”

Mainers are facing difficult decisions about their holidays this year. Public health experts are advising families to stay home for the holidays as cases of COVID-19 spike in Maine and across the country, and top doctors have said they believe household transmission is driving a national spike in infections. The hallmarks of the upcoming season – travel, shared meals, crowded pews, even trick-or-treating – could continue the surge in cases.

Some people already have decided to spend their holidays with only immediate family this year. Several said they are hoping for a warmer-than-usual November day to allow an outdoor meet-up or backyard fire. Those who will travel see testing as a critical component to their plans, and at least one site is already running out of rapid test appointments before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Others don’t feel like they can make their decisions even a month ahead during such an uncertain year.

The challenge, many said, will be to find meaning in their celebrations when so many other pieces will be missing.

“I think for us it has to be more than just getting on Zoom and watching other people eat a meal,” Brian Allenby said. “You can’t re-create it, so how do you identify the elements that are important and meaningful and spiritual?”

‘AN UNINVITED GUEST’

Federal and state public health officials have advised people to keep their celebrations small and local this year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a guide for holiday gatherings, including a list of Thanksgiving activities ranked from low to high risk.

Eating dinner with only people who live in your household is low risk. So is shopping the holiday sales online. Having an outdoor meal with family or friends from your own community is considered moderate risk. Shopping in crowded stores or attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside your household rank as high-risk activities.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills said she understands the pull of holiday visits and gatherings, but encouraged Mainers not to let their guard down.

“I understand the difficulty facing Maine people who just want to spend time with their loved ones,” Mills said. “I have three brothers, a sister, five daughters, and five grandchildren, all of whom I would love to see for dinner, especially at the holidays, but I don’t want COVID-19 to be an uninvited guest. My family is considering hikes and other outdoor activities, and small, safely-distanced get-togethers, inviting others to join virtually.”

The governor’s order still puts restrictions on out-of-state travelers who are coming to Maine. People who are entering Maine from most states are required to quarantine for 14 days or test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of their arrival.

Erich Fogg, the director of walk-in care services for York Hospital, runs a test site at a clinic on Route 1. Fogg said the staff averages 250 tests per day. Most are lab tests, which can be done on demand and usually return results within 24 hours. But about 90 are rapid tests, which return results in 15 minutes and require an appointment. The online portal to schedule those rapid tests shows no appointments available for more than a week before both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I saw people booking Thanksgiving week, Christmas week, back in July,” Fogg said. “People were trying to get their plans in order.”

Fogg expected demand to continue to increase as college students come home and people start firming up their holiday plans, and he said the hospital has the capacity to do more lab tests in a day if needed. But he warned that a negative test isn’t “an immunity passport.”

“A negative test doesn’t guarantee that you do not have COVID,” Fogg said. “All it means is that at the time, you did not have a measurable amount of the virus to be tested. We strongly recommend that you continue the practices of social and physical distancing, as well as wearing a mask, particularly if you’re visiting folks with a weakened immune system.”

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Charles Mugabe of Portland usually visits his family in Canada for the holidays, but he can’t this year because of COVID-19. He also is mourning his uncle who died this year from the virus. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Some Mainers who would normally go away for the holidays are staying home this year.

Charles Mugabe, 23, would usually drive from Portland to Montreal to celebrate with his extended family. His uncle there loved decorating for Christmas and always bought French pastries for everyone for dessert.

But that uncle died from the coronavirus this year, and the border between the United States and Canada is closed because of the pandemic. Mugabe will spend Christmas with his aunt and grandmother in Maine. He doesn’t usually decorate because they normally travel, but he will this year to honor his uncle’s memory.

“He loved making sure the rooms are sparkling,” Mugabe said.

Dave and Ellen DiNapoli of Falmouth typically bring their six kids to New Jersey to see their large extended family for Thanksgiving. Last year, they went into New York City to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a favorite tradition. Their plan to stay home is particularly hard on their oldest daughter, who is 12 and more aware of the changes than her younger siblings.

“We’re looking at this whole thing like, this is a temporary situation, right?” Dave DiNapoli, 38, said. “So if we miss Thanksgiving, it’s not going to be the end of the world. We’ll be back there for the next Thanksgiving.”

The DiNapolis of Falmouth typically visit family in New Jersey and take in the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving. This year, the family, from left to right, Ellen holding Ambrose, Augustine, Colette, Abbey, Chloe, Dave and Noah, will be giving thanks at home. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Kate Shalvoy of Portland wanted to bring her 2-year-old daughter to see her family in New York for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. But they decided not to gather in person for those holidays in September. Instead, they will rent a house in New York’s Catskills together in November. They will all get tested for COVID-19 before the visit, and then chose dates two weeks before Thanksgiving to avoid busy travel days.

“The ability to get tested really opens up a lot of new possibilities,” said Shalvoy, 37. “It’s a difference maker in being able to get together as a family.”

Ophelia and Hayli Hu Kinney decided not to travel to Illinois to see Ophelia’s family for the holidays. But they also decided not to see Hayli’s family in Midcoast Maine. The couple lives in Scarborough, and they worried about bringing the virus to a part of the state with fewer cases and less stringent precautions.

“Even though they’re closer and in Maine, we just have different philosophies about how to maintain health and safety and what’s important during this time,” said Hayli Hu Kinney, 28. “We think it’s unlikely that we would get together in person.”

Ophelia Hu Kinney said she is thinking about sending a strawberry shortcake to her brother in California to let him know that she is thinking about him even though they will not see each other.

“It’s so hard because I think the pandemic has turned on its head all the things we think are gestures of love, like showing up at someone’s house unexpected or sharing your meal with someone,” said Ophelia Hu Kinney, 30. “But those are gestures of concern right now rather than love.”

Several people said they hope to see friends and family outside for a hike or an evening around a fire pit, but waiting for the forecast makes their planning even harder.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder was among those who said she has too many unanswered questions to make those decisions yet. Will an outdoor meal be possible? Will her son be able to get tested when he comes home from college? Will it be safe for her three kids to see their grandparents?

“We’re getting used to not planning,” Snyder said. “We have to be closer to the time to know what’s happening with the virus, will it be cold out. Everything feels so tentative right now.”

MISSING OUT

The pandemic also has made traditional community events impossible, from large religious services to road races.

At this time last year, Lakshmy Vivek was helping with the final arrangements for the annual Diwali festivities hosted by the India Association of Maine. The Hindu holiday is an important one for people across the world, and more than 100 people came from all over Maine last November for an evening of food and cultural performances at the Riverton Community Center in Portland.

This year, Vivek is planning a quiet celebration with her husband and two children. They will decorate their house with lanterns and bright lights. The day itself will begin with a prayer and a call to relatives in India, and it will end with another prayer and a special meal at their home in Scarborough.

Vivek said her 8-year-old son has been asking about how they will celebrate.

“He’s going to miss out on having all the fun with his friends,” said Vivek, 34. “But he is going to look forward to the sweets.”

Jorma Kurry is usually looking forward to the Thanksgiving Day 4-Miler in November. His wife and son volunteer while he runs the race in downtown Portland with more than 1,500 other people. Kurry teaches math and coaches track at Falmouth High School, and he likes to see former students in the crowd.

This year, the 38th annual race has gone virtual, like many other running events. Kurry said he will still go for a run on Thanksgiving, but the feeling won’t be quite the same.

“How do we get that sense of community and family at the holidays that we’re so used to when there’s so many reasons why we shouldn’t be in big groups?” he said. “It’ll definitely be a little different and a little disappointing.”

Kate Shalvoy, with her daughter Sara Krishtul, 2, helped assemble “survival kits” for the congregation at Temple Beth El as it moved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services to Zoom. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Shalvoy, the executive director at Temple Beth El, struggled with that question as she prepared for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September. Hundreds of people usually come the synagogue on those days, but the services moved to Zoom this year. So she helped assemble what she called “survival kits” for the congregation. They packed more than 300 bags with small ritual items and tokens to make people smile – honey sticks to symbolize sweetness, a craft for children, a piece of “Caution” tape to put on the refrigerator during fasting.

Rabbi Carolyn Braun said the experience of hosting those important services on Zoom was “a little weird.” But more than 120 household still joined online, and she felt connected and engaged with the congregation.

“Usually on holidays and on Shabbat, I try to get away from things like computers,” Braun said. “There I was, set up in our chapel with a computer and an iPad and an iPhone. To me, it looked like the dashboard of an airplane. But it was really wonderful, as wonderful as it could be.”

‘THE MOST IMPORTANT THING’

Allenby also helped plan this year’s High Holiday observances with others from the Temple Beth El congregation. He worried that the Zoom services would be chaotic and disorienting with so many people joining from their own homes, but his experience was the opposite.

“Even if it’s looking at 200 little boxes, you’re seeing people’s faces, you’re seeing their names,” Allenby said. “You’re seeing people you haven’t seen because they’re logging in from Florida where they live now. We came out of it, both my wife and I, saying, ‘Wow, that felt more special that we thought it would.’”

Mainers said that special feeling would be hard to capture this year but more important than ever.

For Vivek, that means talking to her son about the meaning of Diwali. The festival is a joyful one, she said, meant to celebrate the victory of good over evil.

“The most important thing in celebrating any of these festivities is being hopeful and being grateful that you have good health,” she said.

At nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, staff are trying to adapt favorite traditions to their safety precautions.

Nadine Grosso, vice president and director of communications for the Maine Health Care Association, said one facility is hoping to host its usual carolers outside so the residents can still hear their favorite holiday songs. At other facilities, residents will make ornaments for family members or write holiday cards to local first responders. One facility takes residents on an annual drive around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights, a tradition that can continue despite the pandemic.

“Our caregivers have been really creative to figure out, how do we keep residents engaged, keep them socially stimulated,” Grosso said.

Mugabe works for Catholic Charities of Maine and is coordinating outreach to new Mainers about COVID-19. He said his family and many others would normally go to church on Christmas, but the risk of spreading the virus will keep many home this year, even if their churches are open for worship in person. To Mugabe, however, that doesn’t mean the spiritual connection won’t be there.

“In Christianity, we have a saying that the Church is in our hearts,” he said. “When two or three people gather for any purpose of worshipping God or reading the words of God, that God is there with you.”

Hayli and Ophelia Hu Kinney have made it their tradition to exchange stockings of small gifts instead of buying big presents for each other. They hope this season helps families focus on the deeper meaning of whatever holidays they celebrate.

“I think that this particular holiday season might show us the true colors of that type of culture and help us really understand what is important and what we love about the holidays,” Hayli Hu Kinney said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: