NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Americans marked a muted Thanksgiving Day holiday on Thursday (Nov 26), sometimes seeing family only by video after political leaders discouraged travel or large gatherings in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic.
Thanksgiving, normally a day for family and friends to gather in big numbers to feast on turkey and pumpkin pie and remember life's blessings, has been upended by the pandemic, as most US states struggle with spiralling infections and deaths.
"All of a sudden I feel kind of lonely, I have to admit," said Ms Janis Segal, 72, as she prepared to join family members in a Zoom call for Thanksgiving.
Eight months after the pandemic erupted across the United States, most major cities remain under strict rules imposed by state and local officials restricting public gatherings, closing businesses and forbidding indoor dining at restaurants.
The traditional Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, a spectacle of giant character balloons that has delighted children for nearly a century, was scaled back significantly.
The route was reduced to one block, rather than 4km; balloon handlers were replaced by specially rigged vehicles; and spectators were prohibited from lining the streets as before.
The event concluded at noon after three hours of performances, floats and balloons, featuring music stars like Dolly Parton and a four-storey-tall Snoopy in astronaut gear - all without the usual millions crowding the streets to watch.
Metal barricades keeping spectators at a distance did not deter people like Mr Brian Campbell, a 55-year old native of Rockaway, New Jersey, who described his fifth year of coming to the parade as "disappointing", or Ms Moriah Hargrave of Lafayette, Louisiana, who got as close as she could to the action near Macy's flagship store in midtown Manhattan with the hopes of stealing a glimpse of Parton.
"We came to just knock out a few things on our bucket list for New York City," said Ms Hargrave, 36. "It's a little sad to be this far away. But it's fun to be here."
The holiday is being celebrated at a time of severe economic strain for millions of Americans. More than 20 million people are receiving some form of unemployment benefits, and a fresh wave of lay-offs is expected as governors impose business restrictions in a bid to tamp down spiralling infections, and with additional aid from Congress nowhere in sight.
Ms Asia Foreman, who recently founded a non-profit with her sister to raise awareness about mental health issues, was working on Thursday afternoon to finish delivering 500 plates of chicken, macaroni and cheese, yams and greens in Washington, DC.
"We wanted to feed as many people as possible, so turkey wasn't in the budget," she said, adding that many in her community were struggling to make ends meet. "A lot of people haven't been able to find new jobs to provide for their families because of Covid. It's not their fault."
US hospitalisations for Covid-19 reached a record of more than 89,000 on Wednesday, and experts warn that Thanksgiving could lead to a spike in cases and significantly boost a death toll that has exceeded 262,000 nationwide.
Despite advice from the Centres for Disease Control to stay home for the holiday, nearly six million Americans travelled by air from last Friday to Wednesday, according to the US Transportation Security Administration, although that is less than half the figure during the same period last year.
Many Americans have not seen their loved ones for months and see the annual get-together as important enough to outweigh the possible risks.
Nearly 40 per cent plan to attend a "risky gathering" during the holiday season, either in excess of 10 people or with people from outside their household, and a third will not require masks of their guests, according to a national survey by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre.
Many others have cancelled travel plans and will instead connect with loved ones over FaceTime or Zoom.
Ms Margaret Bullard, a public defender in Atlanta, said she and her husband have taken every precaution since the onset of the pandemic, which came soon after the birth of her nine-month-old son. They drove from their home in Marietta, Georgia, to North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with her in-laws, who have been equally fastidious in limiting potential exposure to Covid-19.
"As much as we would like to see some other family members, we know that we would be taking a much bigger risk by doing so," said Ms Bullard, who is co-administrator of a Facebook group for "Covid-conscious" Georgians.
"There will be plenty of opportunities for get-togethers in the future if we all do what we can to stay safe."