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‘You do what you can’: Celebrators tweak traditions to make the most of Thanksgiving as coronavirus numbers rise

A month or so ago, Cynthia Brooks and her colleagues at the Bea Gaddy Family Centers in East Baltimore faced a decision they never thought they’d encounter.

The small nonprofit has hosted a free community dinner every Thanksgiving Day since 1981, feeding hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise have missed out. Its leaders wanted to continue the tradition for a 40th straight year. But with coronavirus cases on the rise, they considered interrupting the streak.

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Instead, they decided to do what Thanksgiving celebrators across the area are doing this year — adapt their time-honored traditions to the extraordinary needs of the moment.

Instead of holding an in-person event, volunteers will deliver dinners to people’s homes. Rather than serve the community at large, they’ll be targeting older adults.

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And while the numbers will be smaller — they’ll reach “only” about 3,000 people this year, as opposed to 10 times that many — at least they will be helping what Brooks, the agency director, calls “our most vulnerable population.”

“We definitely considered canceling, but the thought of the seniors motivated us,” she said. “It’s like Jon Bon Jovi sings, ‘When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.’ ”

Cynthia Brooks, daughter of Bea Gaddy, is keeping her mother's legacy going this year by organizing Thanksgiving food distributions to several area senior centers.
Cynthia Brooks, daughter of Bea Gaddy, is keeping her mother's legacy going this year by organizing Thanksgiving food distributions to several area senior centers. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Across Maryland and beyond, as coronavirus cases continue to multiply, health officials and political leaders have tightened the rules and guidelines around social events.

In New York and New Jersey, officials have reduced the number of people allowed to gather in private homes from 25 to 10. In Pennsylvania, health officials have said anyone who is away from home must wear a mask whether they’re indoors or out. Most governors, and the Centers for Disease Control, have advised against interstate travel.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has said he “strongly” discourages indoor gatherings of more than 25 people. He also asked Marylanders not to travel to states with positivity rates higher than 10% or with case rates above 20 per 100,000 people over the past seven days, a category that includes all but a handful of states in the nation.

The Republican governor himself has canceled his Thanksgiving plans and will have dinner alone with his wife, Yumi.

“I just want to remind the people of Maryland that we have come too far and the stakes are too high [to relax],” he said at a news conference announcing new restrictions two weeks ago. “This virus does not care if you’re tired of it. It does not care if you have holiday plans.”

The surge and resulting changes will mean a different kind of Thanksgiving for many, and in some cases no celebration at all.

Goodwill of the Chesapeake, for instance, has canceled its annual Thanksgiving luncheon, a free event the organization has held in downtown Baltimore every year since 1955, feeding as many as 3,000 people at a time.

Spokesman Jonathan Balog said the group hopes to start a new streak next year.

Even Maryland’s fox hunting clubs have nixed their long-standing Thanksgiving tradition of holding a symbolic first hunt of the season, an occasion historically sanctioned by Episcopal clerics in a ceremony known as “the Blessing of the Hounds.”

“We’re disappointed, as it’s an old, beloved ceremony, but we certainly aren’t surprised and completely understand,” said Turney McKnight, an official with the Elkridge Hunt Club who is usually one of the riders. “The whole year has been so topsy-turvy, it’s like, what’s next?”

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But many Marylanders seem convinced that tweaks in tradition — combined with vigilant application of the safety measures that have become so familiar in this pandemic era — will make it more than possible to enjoy what’s best about the holiday Americans consistently rate as their second favorite of the year.

Take Robin Denning of Mount Washington.

Denning, a software engineer, and her husband, Howie Boyd, a retired engineer, typically spend Thanksgiving hosting about 25 loved ones from around Baltimore.

In most years, Denning said, their guests arrive early to help prepare and cook a meal that generally includes everything from turkey and stuffing to the cucumber salad and mushrooms that Denning’s 86-year-old mother, Ilse, of Harford County, has turned into a family staple.

But because Ilse’s age places her in a high-risk demographic — and because Denning knows a big gathering could become a dreaded “spreader event” — she and Boyd have canceled the usual get-together.

Instead, they’ll join family members in a “Deconstructed Thanksgiving,” stopping at one another’s homes just long enough to drop dishes off on the porch.

Canned goods occupy much of the floor space at Bea Gaddy Family Centers as volunteers prepare boxes to be taken to area senior centers for Thanksgiving meals.
Canned goods occupy much of the floor space at Bea Gaddy Family Centers as volunteers prepare boxes to be taken to area senior centers for Thanksgiving meals. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

It will be a less personal celebration than usual, of course, but Denning said it will be safe, and members of their circle will at least be able to taste one another’s cooking.

“With each [visit], we’ll get to wave and say ‘Hi,’” she said. “It’ll be totally contactless.”

Others plan to enjoy a different sort of hybrid model.

For Chris and Stephanie Carpenter of Cockeysville, both 28, Thanksgiving is ordinarily a big deal, involving activities with as many as a dozen loved ones.

The couple has established a range of traditions: taking an early Turkey Trot run at Loch Raven Reservoir, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, preparing a blowout dinner with homemade fixings, and enjoying a bonfire to close out the day.

The gathering will be smaller this year, though, and interaction with their elderly parents will be virtual, in part to keep them isolated from Stephanie, who works in health care.

Chris doesn’t see that as ruining the day.

“Nothing can replace a hug from family or a kitchen full of loved ones laughing, but a family Zoom conference and raising a glass of wine ... will do just fine,” he said.

And in Locust Point, Angie and Matt Hamlet said their plan is to do their best to enjoy a smaller, more local celebration than they had anticipated.

Matt, Anderson and Angie Hamlet of Locust Point would have traveled to Michigan for Thanksgiving this year but will be staying home and enjoying a pared-down dinner featuring beef Wellington. Angie says one disappointment will be that they won't be able to share Anderson, 3 months, with loved ones. "We're the first in our families to have the first baby, and it's just kind of sad that we can't really hand him off to anyone," she said. "I was looking forward to that, but there's always next year."
Matt, Anderson and Angie Hamlet of Locust Point would have traveled to Michigan for Thanksgiving this year but will be staying home and enjoying a pared-down dinner featuring beef Wellington. Angie says one disappointment will be that they won't be able to share Anderson, 3 months, with loved ones. "We're the first in our families to have the first baby, and it's just kind of sad that we can't really hand him off to anyone," she said. "I was looking forward to that, but there's always next year." (Courtesy of the Hamlet family)

Angie, a public relations manager, and Matt, an engineer, would have taken their infant son, Anderson, to meet her extended family in Michigan for the first time, she said, but that state’s high positive test rate made the trip too big a risk.

Instead, they’ll find their holiday solace in a smaller way, one tailored to their personal interests.

Rather than assemble the traditional family meal of turkey, squash, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole, Angie said, she and Matt will be “living out a dream we’ve had for years” by making beef Wellington, a favorite dish of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, whose show “Hell’s Kitchen” the couple once binge-watched together.

That might even assuage some of the admittedly sizable disappointment they feel over having to miss the trip.

“I had thought, ‘It’d be so fun to be passing around a baby this year,’” Angie said. “We’re the first in our families to have the first baby, and it’s just kind of sad that we can’t hand him off to anyone. But there’s always next year.”

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Brooks and her colleagues at the Bea Gaddy center, Sandra Smith and Rena Kinley, won’t be waiting that long.

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Weeks ago, when they began reckoning with the reality that the pandemic might actually be getting worse, they had to weigh safety against the possibility of failing the organization’s founding mission for the first time.

It was 1981 when Brooks’ mother, Bea Gaddy, decided to take $290 she had won playing the lottery and use it to provide Thanksgiving dinner in her small rowhome for a handful of residents in need.

Over the years, the dinner blossomed into a bona fide Baltimore tradition, an event organizers say has fed as many as 50,000 people a year, including deliveries.

Brooks and her colleagues knew a dinner that size could become a “super spreader,” and when Baltimore City later set a cap of 10 people at indoor gatherings, that reduced the possibilities at Boston’s Restaurant and Bar on East Pratt Street, where chef Teaon Everage had volunteered to cook the turkeys.

What emerged was a three-part plan: a total of about 100 volunteers would drive donated meals, uncooked, to senior centers five days before Thanksgiving, then deliver cooked meals to individual seniors on the holiday itself.

Brooks said that last week they were still trying to get the word out to seniors, who only had to contact Bea Gaddy to request a meal.

For those who miss those deadlines, Brooks said, volunteers would be working Wednesday and Thursday to provide cooked dinners that can be picked up at Boston’s Restaurant on the holiday itself.

They don’t want to miss anyone who qualifies.

“We don’t quit,” she said. “To quit and walk away means you didn’t try. If you put your mind to something, you can make it work, pandemic or not.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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