Postpone Thanksgiving and Save Hundreds of Lives

Let’s postpone Thanksgiving until May 27. By then Americans should have a lot more to be thankful for, including the likely availability of at least two highly effective vaccines, perhaps the freedom to get together with friends and possibly the end of the current economic slump.

The date doesn’t have to be in exactly six months, but it should be soon after vaccines have made it safer to travel, spend time indoors with loved ones and break bread with older and more vulnerable members of the family.

Before dismissing this idea, hear me out.

First, picture what a November Thanksgiving will look like this year: a smaller group around the table, perhaps people wearing masks and coping with the awkwardness of a not-quite-a-hug across the room. And in the background will be echoes of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent warning that “household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise in Covid-19 cases.”

By contrast, a post-vaccine Thanksgiving offers greater possibilities: hugging loved ones, huddling around the dinner table and shouting at whatever sport is being shown on TV. There will be more love around the table, because you can invite your entire crew, not just those family or friends already in your bubble or those who are willing to risk their health.

After a year involving so much loss, Americans need a true Thanksgiving — infused with love and gratitude — rather than the constraints that will come from celebrating according to an arbitrary calendar date.

In economic terms, a later Thanksgiving would yield a larger benefit. It would also involve a much smaller cost. During a pandemic, the relevant costs are measured in health risk. Thanksgiving in November comes with a huge cost, in that you might catch the coronavirus, or spread it to loved ones and then even to the entire community. That cost is especially high right now, as infection rates soar.

Moreover, news that at least two highly effective vaccines are likely to be available within several months has transformed the cost-benefit calculus of being Covid-careful.

With a vaccine around the corner, the benefit of avoiding the virus is no longer merely deferring your bout with the bug. Instead, an infection deferred for a few months could well be an infection prevented. A hospitalization deferred could be a hospitalization prevented. And a Covid death deferred could be a death prevented.

The point is that when there are solid reasons for expecting greater safety just over the horizon, there’s an even larger benefit to being careful now, because that will ensure that you and your family live to enjoy those better days.

While the private benefits for your family are great, the benefits of postponing Thanksgiving a few months for the country as a whole are far larger, still.

Around 50 million people may travel for Thanksgiving this year, according to a forecast by the AAA, the motorist group. While this would be a 10 percent decline from last year — honestly, only 10 percent? — each of those travelers is potentially a deadly disease vector, spreading the coronavirus around the country.

A celebration of Thanksgiving by millions of Americans in November is the opposite of “flattening the curve,” as it packs a family’s heightened infection risk into the same few days as every other family’s. As a result, a post-Thanksgiving surge in infections could easily overwhelm many hospitals, transforming severe cases into fatal ones.

Thanksgiving-in-May — or at another suitable time, after the vaccines arrive and relieve the pressure on hospitals — carries no such risk.

So here’s my proposal: The president should announce that he’s postponing Thanksgiving until, say, May 27.

Technically it’s a bit tricky, because a 1941 congressional resolution determined the November date, but it’s easy enough for the president to proclaim a new one-off holiday — let’s call it Thanksgiving in May — while leaving the existing holiday on the books.

In any case, this proposal isn’t about legal enforcement, but rather starting conversations within families.

Which president would make the announcement? In an ideal world, public health policy wouldn’t be politicized, and President Trump and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. would announce it together. But if Mr. Trump won’t participate, then Mr. Biden could go it alone. His words would carry weight, because he would be announcing a public holiday that would take place during his administration.

Families would then have to decide: We’re going to celebrate the holiday together — we always do — but does this mean we get together in November or May?

Getting people to ask the question might just be enough. After all, if your family is at all like mine, the answer is obvious: Celebrating Thanksgiving in May with hugs, loud conversation and grandparents beats masks, six-foot markers and no grandparents in November.

And so an announcement that Thanksgiving is being postponed might be enough to create that new reality.

In economics, this is called a coordination game, one in which you want to make choices that complement those of others. In this case, you want to gather for a meal on the same day your loved ones do. What’s important is coordinating — so you are all in the same place on the same day — not what particular day was set decades ago on a harvest calendar.

And in a coordination game, the precise choice matters less than making sure it is the same choice others make. It is the reason that Americans begin business meetings with a handshake, but Japanese begin with a bow. Both are fine choices, but the greeting works best when everyone makes the same choice.

Thanksgiving would be safest if everyone could all agree to get together in May, instead.

This proposal can be strengthened a bit, too. The president can declare May 27, 2021 — or perhaps the first Thursday after all older and vulnerable Americans have been offered a vaccine — as America’s first and, it is to be hoped, only deferred Thanksgiving. The country has added one-off holidays before — to mark the deaths of past presidents — and there are so many deaths to mark this year.

The White House could tell federal workers that they can take paid time off in May, if they don’t use their November entitlement. This might be powerful. Even though only a small share of the public works for the government, a much larger share of Thanksgiving dinners include at least one government worker.

The private sector could play an important role, too. Bosses could agree that anyone who doesn’t travel this November has a right to take time off in May instead. That decision would benefit both the workers, who get to take time off when they want it, and their bosses, who worry that a post-Thanksgiving coronavirus surge might force more costly shutdowns.

In addition, the president could pressure the airlines to agree to rebook November flights for May without cost.

The idea of moving Thanksgiving to accommodate economic concerns isn’t new. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifted the holiday one week earlier, in an attempt to increase spending. After all, he said, Thanksgiving is “a perfectly movable feast.”

It is a movable feast meant to celebrate a bountiful harvest. At the end of a very long 2020, the United States is likely to harvest the most important crops anyone could have hoped for — vaccines that will keep us safe. That’s a bounty well worth celebrating. In May.

Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan and a host of the “Think Like an Economist” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @justinwolfers

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