Public health officials have been pleading with Americans to stay home this year for Thanksgiving. And, despite busy airports this past weekend, most people plan to follow their advice, according to a huge survey asking Americans about their holiday plans.
The map shows the geographic variation in those plans, and there are partisan splits, too. But even among Republicans, two-thirds are forgoing a large traditional Thanksgiving.
Our data comes from interviews conducted by the global data and survey firm Dynata at the request of The New York Times. The firm asked a question about Thanksgiving plans, obtaining more than 150,000 survey responses from Nov. 13-23, enough data to provide estimates more detailed than at the state level.
Nationwide, the survey found that only around 27 percent of Americans plan to dine with people outside their household. That number is roughly consistent with the results of several recent smaller surveys, including those from YouGov, the Covid States Project and researchers at Ohio State University, which all find fewer than a third of Americans plan to celebrate in groups.
It also aligns with the results of a separate informal Times survey of epidemiologists. Out of 635 public health experts, only around 21 percent of them planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with people outside their household. The two surveys — of ordinary Americans and of epidemiologists — used identical question wording.
Americans and a large survey of epidemiologists gave similar answers: Most said they would not celebrate Thanksgiving with people outside their household.
Share of people eating Thanksgiving dinner with people outside their household
But as the map illustrates, there is substantial regional variation in Thanksgiving plans, with people in some parts of the country much more likely to gather with others. In parts of Vermont, for example, only about 14 percent of households will be celebrating with people outside their household. In parts of Missouri, more than half of residents plan to.
Public health officials are worried about Thanksgiving celebrations as coronavirus cases have reached record highs in many areas of the country. Traditional holiday celebrations, with long meals indoors and with some travel typically involved, could contribute to more cases of the disease, which is primarily spread through droplets and aerosols that can linger in unventilated indoor spaces. Last week, an array of federal and state health officials urged Americans to skip such plans and stay home for the holiday.
Party identification appears to explain much of the variation in Thanksgiving plans.
Share of people eating Thanksgiving dinner with people outside their household, by political party
As in a similar survey of mask-wearing from the summer, partisanship appears to explain much of the regional variation in Thanksgiving plans. Over all, survey respondents who identified as members of the Libertarian, Green or Republican parties were more likely to be planning a multi-household Thanksgiving than Democrats or those unaffiliated with a political party.
States that President Trump won in the election this month were generally more likely to have higher rates of planned multi-household Thanksgivings than states won by Joe Biden.
Americans who live in states won by President Trump in 2020 were, on average, more likely to say they planned to have Thanksgiving with people outside their household.
Share of people eating Thanksgiving dinner with people outside their household, by state
Won by Biden
Won by Trump
Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, the state with the lowest share of planned mixed-household Thanksgivings in the survey, said he and other officials have worked hard throughout the pandemic to have scientists, and not politicians, deliver public health messages. But he and his wife, Trudi Inslee, delivered a “fireside chat” last week about Thanksgiving, highlighting the family traditions they will be forgoing this year. Coronavirus cases are rising in Washington, and the state has put in new restrictions on commerce, but the case numbers there remain lower than in many other parts of the country. Mr. Inslee said he was pleased to see that people in his state were avoiding large Thanksgivings.
“We can now crow we’re now the most thankful state in the nation,” he said. “We’re thankful for our loved ones that we want to keep alive for next Thanksgiving.”
Early in the pandemic, there was a minimal partisan split on public health advice, said Samara Klar, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona. But she noted that diverging messages from Republican and Democratic leaders have been mirrored by splits in support for public health measures and self-reported mask wearing. Thanksgiving plans seem to fit that broader pattern.
“There’s nothing inherent about Republicans that make them less concerned or inherent about Democrats that make them more panicky,” she said. “But when you have an issue people don’t know a lot about, people will reasonably look to their leaders for cues, and that’s why we see a gap.”
Her research has shown that partisan splits on coronavirus precautions tend to narrow in places that have been hit hardest by the virus.
There is some evidence that recent dire warnings from public health officials are influencing Americans’ holiday plans. Our survey began collecting responses on Nov. 13. After Nov. 19, when officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people to stay home for the holiday and when the White House coronavirus task force recommended avoiding indoor gatherings, the number of Americans planning to celebrate with people outside their household fell, to about 25 percent from about 28 percent, although the figure has rebounded somewhat.
Most of that shift was among Republicans, who may have been more attuned than Democrats to changing advice from the White House. Democrats have tended to say they are more cautious about coronavirus risks throughout the pandemic.
The C.D.C. announcement on Nov. 19, urging Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving, may have had a small effect.
Share of people saying they would eat Thanksgiving dinner with people outside their household, by date of survey response
There are reasons to suspect that more Americans will be mixing on Thanksgiving than these studies suggest. In general, people taking surveys are often reluctant to admit to behavior that may be judged as undesirable. And the pandemic has made the notion of a “household” more flexible for many families, who have let neighbors, friends or relatives into their “bubbles” to expand their social interactions while limiting their Covid risk. Airports were busier this week than at any time since the pandemic became a national emergency, though peak air travel on Sunday was still only half of the normal number for the holiday.
The Ohio State University survey found that only 21 percent of adults said they’d be celebrating with people outside their household. But another question found that around 38 percent of people planned to celebrate in groups of more than 10. The discrepancy is too large to be explained by the small number of large households in the country.
Iahn Gonsenhauser, one of the co-authors of that survey, said he worries that the answers to the household question may be colored by some combination of embarrassment and a flexible definition of households. But he still said it was notable that most people in the survey appeared to be taking public health messages to heart.
“It’s so easy to key into the people who are not following the guidelines or who are adamantly antagonizing the guidelines or the recommendations right now,” said Dr. Gonsenhauser, the chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “That’s a much louder message right now than the message of people who are just saying this is not a good idea right now, and I’m not doing in-person Thanksgiving.”