Thanksgiving sacrifices: How frontline workers adapt to limited family time for holidays

Isabel Keane
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

There’s been no shortage of sacrifices made this year, and with the holiday season just around the corner, New Yorkers are being asked to make another: Don't have more than 10 people over for Thanksgiving.  

New restrictions to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus were shared by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week. These changes come just in time for the holidays, and call for limiting indoor gatherings in private residences to 10 people at most. 

For first responders, front line workers and those working in health care, spending the holiday apart from family or loved ones has been ritual long before the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Working during the holidays has become a routine part of my life,” said Eric Thomas, deputy chief of clinical care at CHS Mobile Integrated Health Care in Rochester. 

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When working in health care, a 24/7 and 365-days-a-year operation, you are expected to hold holiday shifts. While that comes with the territory, Thomas said they’ll often see younger staff who don’t have children of their own offer to cover a shift for someone who may want to spend part of the day with their child.  

“A lot of people enter the business understanding that they will have to sacrifice some holiday time. I don’t think this year is radically different in that regard,” Thomas said.  

Chris Kear, Rockland County's Director of Fire and Emergency Services, photographed at the Rockland Fire Training Center in Pomona on Tuesday, November 17, 2020.

For volunteer firefighters in Rockland County, Thanksgiving is admittedly a busy day spent extinguishing cooking fires, said Chris Kear, Rockland County's director of fire and emergency services. 

"Precautions are always put in place, especially with COVID going on," Kear said. "If the homeowner says, 'Everything's OK, you don't have to come into my house,' the fire department likes to verify, but with COVID cases on the rise, they'll take their word for it." 

This type of carefulness plays both ways, Kear said.

"First responders are at a higher risk to exposures," he said. "While first responders are cautious when helping the public, the public should be cautious of them too." 

Despite the new regulations, two things are certain on Thanksgiving: cooking fires and groups gathering to celebrate. 

"The reality is people are going to celebrate the holidays, the governor is not going to go house to house, but I think people will be smart, limit their gatherings and will stay home if they're feeling sick," Kear said. 

Irvington Police Chief Michael Cerone said that enforcement of the 10-person limit for gatherings in private residences wouldn't be feasible for his police department. 

Irvington Police Chief Michael Cerone, photographed Nov. 12, 2020, says that he will probably be holding a virtual Thanksgiving celebration with family this year due to COVID-19 concerns.

"It's an issue of self-policing. People need to do that on their own. They don't need us to be involved in their family gatherings," said Cerone, who added that his family will be holding a virtual holiday celebration this year. 

While a firm plan of enforcement is still up in the air, the governor has urged New Yorkers to choose to limit their gatherings. Other Northeast states — including New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — also have similar rules.  

"We call it 'living room spread,'" Cuomo said Friday. "'But I'm just with my family. My family would never infect me.' Your family's not in control of it."

In New York, those who do not comply with public health orders may be fined up to $10,000. Fines are lower for violations of orders applying to most private residences, at $50 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses, according to state law.

Despite this, some officials have taken a strong stance against the governor's order. 

"I have no plans to utilize my office's resources or Deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner," Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard said in a statement on social media. 

"These traditions should not be stopped or interrupted by Governor Cuomo's Mandates," Howard wrote, adding that he is encouraging people to "follow their heart and act responsibly." 

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Despite some backlash across social media and an air of uncertainty for enforcement, when asked, many New Yorkers feel limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people is a small price to pay to keep their families safe. 

For Janet Rizzo, who lives in Bath Beach, Brooklyn with her husband, who hasn't been able to go into work in months, and 25-year-old daughter, who has been teaching online, it "doesn't matter as long as we are alive."

"It's not a sacrifice if it helps to stop the spread of a deadly virus," she said. "My father fought a war at 21, the least I can do is wear a mask, only go out to get food and see my friends through Zoom."  

Rizzo said she plans on staying home and holding Zoom calls with family over the holidays. 

Similarly in Schenectady, Lisa Houck, a 34-year-old mother of two, said she wants to be with her family for the long haul. 

"Our family already decided against doing a large Thanksgiving. We usually have about a dozen folks total at our table, but this year we'll have five," she said. 

Houck says her family is only seeing one person outside their immediate household — her mother-in-law, who lives down the street. Both Houck and her mother-in-law are high-risk, she said, but they have been limiting their gatherings so if they ever need to contact trace, it won't be a huge issue. 

Sgt. Leonardo Fonseca, a member of the Army National Guard, photographed in Tarrytown Nov. 12, 2020. Fonseca has been working on a COVID-19 support mission, and will be working this Thanksgiving. He says that his family may end up having a smaller than usual gathering for the holiday.

While Thanksgiving was never really a big holiday for Sgt. Leonardo Fonseca, who is part of the Army National Guard out of Peekskill, it's going to look a lot different this year. 

"I'm currently serving the state of New York for the COVID-19 mission, so this year I will be working," Fonseca said.

Fonseca said he usually spends Thanksgiving at work, so this year won't be different because of that, but his family may have a smaller gathering than usual with just the immediate family. 

When it boils down to how to safely celebrate the holidays during the coronavirus pandemic, Nina Geiss said it's all about priorities. 

"I have to think about what is more important: Is it one holiday meal or is it wanting to go to my sister's wedding in April? Or is it wanting to celebrate Christmas next year when we aren't in the middle of a pandemic?" said Geiss, who is a nursing assistant at Garnet Health Medical Center in Middletown. 

"To me, that future, all these years to come, are more of a priority for me," Geiss said. "I'd encourage everyone to look at the bigger picture."  

Geiss' family mostly works in health care at various medical facilities in the area, so they are used to a non-traditional holiday, oftentimes celebrated on a different day to fit as many schedules as possible. 

This year they'll be celebrating virtually, over video chat and social media. 

Nina Geiss, a nursing assistant at Garnet Health Medical Center in Middletown. Geiss is  also a union leader at Garnet, and is pictured wearing her 1199SEIU delegate pin.

"One of my sisters is feeling really poorly and being tested for COVID," she said. "Even if her test comes back clean, we don't know who else might have it, who else might be carrying it or who could've been exposed." 

Despite all the precautions they regularly exercise, Geiss has not seen her dad much since March. 

"I see my dad about once a month to say hello for maybe 10 minutes just because we don’t know if I’ve been exposed at work or if he’s been exposed at work,” she said. 

"I miss my dad today, but I don't have to miss him in six months because we're both still going to be here. Because we do the right things. We distance, we wear our masks and we limit our gatherings. It sucks right now but it won't in the future," Geiss said. "I hope it won't."  

Isabel Keane covers trending news for The Journal News, Poughkeepsie Journal and Times-Herald Record. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @ijkeane