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‘It is a different year’: Some Marylanders plan Thanksgiving outside, under a tent

For the first time in years, Melissa Greenhouse and her family of five are staying home instead of traveling to visit relatives for Thanksgiving.

The Homeland resident plans to cook the holiday meal but serve it outside, under a tent on her back patio with some strategically placed heaters. That way, her sister’s family of four can join them, at a distance.

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“We needed space to stretch out,” said Greenhouse, a meeting planner, who said the thinking went, “we’re locked in here because we can’t go anywhere, so let’s put up a tent.”

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its eighth month amid a surge in confirmed cases of COVID-19, Thanksgiving at some households is moving outdoors. Some in the Baltimore area see it as a way to gather for a cherished American holiday but do so safely.

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Already deluged with tent orders from restaurants, tent rental companies say they have been inundated this month with calls to book tents to cover backyards, patios and decks, and to rent side walls, heaters, tables, chairs and lights. Gatherings typically range from 10 to 15 people and up to 25, the maximum number permitted at outdoor gatherings in much of Maryland.

“We’ve been somewhat overwhelmed because just about all of our tents are at restaurants right now,” with others out at schools and churches, said Dave Larkin, owner of Baltimore Tent Co.

“In previous years, our only Thanksgiving business has been table and chair rentals,” he said. But this year, “everyone feels safer outside.”

Some, like Greenhouse’s family, anticipated the need to move outdoors and made plans weeks ago to rent coverings.

But with the virus surging this fall, more people are looking to adjust plans and considering outdoors as an option. Such moves come as health and government officials have tightened restrictions on gatherings and warned against travel out of state.

In Maryland, state and local officials have restricted occupancy capacity for both indoor and outdoor locations as cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 mounted. Restaurants are allowed to operate at only 50% capacity right now, so many ordered tents for outdoor dining, which public health experts say can be OK as long as there’s airflow and the tents have sides open.

The state strongly discourages gatherings of more than 25 people. Several jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Prince George’s counties, have limited gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors.

Nearly 90% of Maryland residents are not planning to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, AAA reported.

To keep up with demand for tents, which has at least tripled from a year ago, Larkin said he’s ordered more from manufacturers.

“We’re really building up our inventory, and the money we make we turn right around and spend it on new tents,” he said.

Customers have requested tents to accommodate gatherings of 10 to 15 people mostly in Baltimore, Harford and Howard, and for larger-than-usual tents to allow for social distancing and no more than six people to a table, Larkin said.

The cost of a 10-by-30-foot tent on a patio with heat, lighting, tables, chairs and linens can run in the range of $1,000 and up, said Mike Young, general manager of Party Party Events in Forest Hill.

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“Normally Thanksgiving is a lot of people picking up a couple of tables and chairs to fill in,” Young said. ”This year, everyone is really trying to move everything outside and think of different ways to have family over.”

Young expected some additional last-minute Thanksgiving business as “everyone this year has been waiting last minute to do anything,” he said. “They don’t know what’s in store.”

Loane Bros. tent techs set up a tent.
Loane Bros. tent techs set up a tent. (Kenneth K. Lam)

As Thanksgiving approaches, traditions other than family dinners have been scaled back as well or canceled.

Football games at the NFL level still may go on, but the traditional high school Turkey Bowl will not. Baltimore-are Catholic schools Calvert Hall College and Loyola Blakefield canceled the game that had been played on Thanksgiving since 1929.

Macy’s said it will televise a smaller version of its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade but said the event will take place on a shorter route in New York City and be closed to spectators. The retailer said it has reduced the number of participants by more than 80% and split them into groupings over three days.

“We will keep America entertained safely from the comforts of home this year,” said Susan Tercero, the parade’s executive producer, in an announcement.

Even those using tents in their backyards said they are scaling back.

Some say they’ve limited numbers to immediate family or just one side of the family. Greenhouse lamented that her father, in his 80s, won’t be able to join them this year.

“It is a different year,” said Bryan Loane, president of Loane Bros., which rents tents, awnings and supplies for parties and supplied the tent for Greenhouse’s dinner.

The pandemic has brought in a slew of new customers who’ve decided to hold Thanksgiving dinner outdoors, he said. The company started installing tents last week.

“It looks like we’ll stay fairly busy through Wednesday,” Loane said. “Some want to be enclosed and heated, and others just want protection from the rain. They want to be outside and open as they can be.”

He said that within families, people have different comfort levels about getting together, and in several cases, one or more family members decided to opt out.

And business hasn’t been up as much as he thought it might be because there’s so much uncertainty.

When it comes to making plans to have a dinner or attend one, he said, “a lot of people haven’t decided.”

One client rented a 20-foot-by-40-foot tent that under normal circumstances could seat up to 80 people.

“He’s only going to have 14, with three or four family groups sitting far apart,” Loane said. “At least they can see each other.”

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