For the first time in two years, Tim Wyatt is hosting a Thanksgiving feast at his home in Birmingham, Ala. Along with the traditional turkey, Mr. Wyatt will spend days preparing his slow-roasted pork shoulder with Alabama white sauce. His wife, Nancy Wyatt, will cook all of her enticing side dishes, like sour cream mini-muffins and sweet potato casserole with sage butter.
Everyone from their extended family is invited. But Mr. Wyatt has made a request: If you want to come by and eat his signature fall-off-the-bone pork, you have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“I felt responsible for myself, my wife and anybody else visiting my house that day,” said Mr. Wyatt, 72, who expects at least 15 guests.
Like Mr. Wyatt, many Americans thinking about hosting or attending a bigger Thanksgiving celebration this year are considering a question that has become sensitive and often polarizing: Will they and other guests be vaccinated?
The age-old wisdom about dinner conversation “is to avoid sex, death and politics,” said Noel Brewer, a professor specializing in health behaviors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Vaccinations have moved onto that list.”
Still, they threaten to complicate the holiday planning and the meal itself. “People who get vaccinated can also be self-righteous, and some people who haven’t been vaccinated can be belligerent,” Dr. Brewer said, adding, “That could really be a combustible mix.”
In interviews, many people — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — said they were planning to tiptoe around the subject, in some cases avoiding a meal with those they might disagree with. Others, who are immunocompromised or have children too young to be vaccinated, are grappling with how to decline invitations from unvaccinated relatives. And some hosts, worried about safety, are drawing a line.
Mr. Wyatt was talking on the phone with his sister last month about his Thanksgiving plans when he impulsively told her, “Tell your kids they can’t come unless they’re vaccinated.” Within a week, he received a text message from his sister, with a photo of his nephew at a pharmacy where he was getting his shot.
Mr. Wyatt forwarded the picture to his daughter, Emily Plumlee, 41, of Huntsville, Ala. Her father’s vaccine mandate put her at ease about the get-together. “I’m relieved for a sense of normalcy,” she said.
Last year, the pre-Thanksgiving concerns centered on social distancing and taking risks with the coronavirus. This year, the focus is inoculation; more than 192 million Americans had been fully vaccinated as of Sunday morning, but that is only about 58 percent of the total population.
Those conversations are already happening as people send out invitations, said Richard M. Carpiano, a public-health scientist who studies vaccine hesitancy at the University of California, Riverside. “While lots of invitation lists are taken for granted every year, this year, it provides the opportunity for people to actually set parameters,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for the holiday season is that people should protect others ineligible for vaccines, such as young children, by getting inoculated and encouraging guests to be vaccinated. The C.D.C. also advises that people gathering with others from multiple households in different parts of the country consider taking additional precautions, like getting a coronavirus test beforehand.
But many people oppose the vaccines, for various reasons. Some said that stance had alienated them from their families and friends.
In Honolulu, Rasa Fournier, a spokeswoman for the Aloha Freedom Coalition — an organization formed in September 2020 to fight against stringent health mandates in the pandemic — said she had invited family and friends, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, for a vegan Thanksgiving.
“All of that fear and distancing is a really awful way to go,” said Ms. Fournier, 49, who is unvaccinated against the coronavirus because she believes the vaccines are not safe or effective, despite overwhelming evidence that they are. “We just want to live life normally, and with love, and with aloha.”
Ms. Fournier said the vaccine had been used as a way to divide people. “The vaccinated people will uninvite people, and it’s incredibly hurtful and sad,” she said, adding that she had lost many friends because of her beliefs.
Alana Newman, 35, who lives near Lake Charles, La., plans to celebrate Thanksgiving at her parents’ home, just outside Dallas. She is unvaccinated, and said she unsuccessfully tried to persuade her parents not to get vaccines. She said she had co-founded the Health Freedom Summit, a group that disputes mainstream information about vaccines and the coronavirus.
“I believe this might be my last Thanksgiving to be with my parents,” said Ms. Newman, who worries about the vaccines’ side effects. “I’m not going to start a fight over the topic. I’m going to go to Thanksgiving and just love them.”
She said many unvaccinated people would avoid having a Thanksgiving dinner with vaccinated relatives. “There’s a lot of people who don’t want to be demonized and humiliated for their decisions,” she said. “It’s easier to stay home and keep things private.”
Most Americans probably won’t argue about vaccines at the Thanksgiving table, because they normally gather with people they’re politically aligned with, said Yanna Krupnikov, a political science professor at Stony Brook University and co-author of “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction.”
All the same, Dr. Krupnikov said vaccines were a very personal matter for many people, and could enter the holiday conversation. “Nobody would discuss the election or other political issues,” she said, but “they’re going to think about the vaccine.”
Even before the pandemic, Elizabeth Bossert, of Bryan-College Station, Texas, said vaccines were a sore subject for her family.
“We just kind of listen and silently disagree,” said Ms. Bossert, 36, who has been vaccinated and plans to observe the holiday at her sister’s home in Houston. “No sense in arguing with people and making things unpleasant. We always get along at Thanksgiving.”
But trying to avoid arguments completely can be foolish, said Abdullah Shihipar, a research associate at Brown University. “I’d rather have a conflict with a relative now and reconcile it later than have someone die,” he said.
Although Ashlye Cox, 37, hasn’t finalized her Thanksgiving plans yet, she said one thing is certain: She won’t have someone who opposes vaccines over for dinner.
“I’m very, very pro-vaccine,” said Ms. Cox, a nurse in Rolesville, N.C. “I just wouldn’t even want them in there because I wouldn’t feel like dealing with it. Not in my house.” Debating the issue with guests would just make her more adamant. “I’ll talk about it until I’m blue in the face,” she said.
The message is quieter at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, in Denver, where Thanksgiving meals will be given out free, along with the vaccine information the center continually distributes. The center’s founder, Jeff S. Fard, said he won’t browbeat people to get vaccinated.
“We don’t push mandates and Covid shaming,” said Mr. Fard, 55. “When you mandate something in our community, it raises more suspicions than comfort.”
After remodeling her home in Madison, N.J., during the pandemic, Laurie Erickson, 60, said she was looking forward to having a Thanksgiving feast with about 25 people, including children and grandchildren whom she hadn’t had over for Thanksgiving in three years. But when the Delta variant contributed to the surge of cases over the summer, she and her husband, David, felt it was necessary to impose a vaccine requirement for those over age 11 this Thanksgiving.
She decided to write a note, but was reluctant to send it for a few weeks because she was concerned about backlash. She finally decided to send it to only a small group of relatives at the end of August. “We hope you will reconsider your decision to forego [sic] the vaccination,” she wrote. “For your own sake and ours, and mostly because we love you, please vaccinate.”
The guest list dwindled. At least eight people declined to come, and simply said they had made other plans for the holiday, which is traditionally held in Ms. Erickson’s home.
“I don’t regret sending it,” she said. “It was guidelines for what we want at our house. It makes me sad, but I don’t regret it.”
The varied viewpoints that family members bring together are a hallmark of Thanksgiving, said Timothy Callaghan, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies vaccine hesitancy and health politics.
When people debate partisan issues, Dr. Callaghan said, each side will marshal reasons it is right. “We have a very clear evidence base as to why we need Americans to be vaccinated against Covid-19,” he said. “Whereas with politics, there are two sides and both sides can be heard. But the big difference is that your choice to vaccinate has a huge impact not on only on yourself, but on society as a whole.”
Christine Natalie, 35, of Bennington County, Vt., says it is still too risky for her to join a large Thanksgiving gathering because she has undergone immunomodulation therapy, which would make her more vulnerable if she contracted the virus. Instead, she’ll go to a smaller family celebration where all adults will be vaccinated. Children too young for a vaccine will also attend; the presence of an unvaccinated adult could put them at risk.
“My relatives are more concerned of spreading it to me,” Ms. Natalie said. “I feel differently toward people who haven’t taken the steps to protect others. It shows a lot about their character.”
Billie Jean Van Knight, 43, who has rheumatoid arthritis, doesn’t allow unvaccinated people in her home in St. Paul, Minn., and minimizes her trips outside. But now that she has her booster shot, she feels more freedom. She’ll spend the holiday at the home of her husband’s aunt and uncle, where everyone will have been vaccinated.
“I wish people would just be kinder to each other and think about each other a little more,” she said. “It’s not about your freedoms. It’s about other people’s as well.”
If someone wants to start a Thanksgiving discussion about the importance of getting vaccinated, it’s important to remember that they won’t change someone’s mind during one conversation, said Melody Butler, 35, a nurse from Lindenhurst, N.Y., and the executive director of Nurses Who Vaccinate. People should be prepared to make themselves available to answer questions or continue talking.
“What’s really important is to let them know that you want them to be vaccinated because you care,” she said. “You want them to be around for next Thanksgiving.”
Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.