Bay Area residents spent Thanksgiving Day savoring their opportunity to feel normal — or something close to it — but the emotional weight and residual stress of an enduring COVID-19 pandemic were not so easy to shed.
A year ago, the anxiety of a growing winter surge had dampened Thanksgiving’s festivities, with most families either isolating themselves at home or undertaking well-documented health risks to gather with their loved ones.
On Thursday, by contrast, residents felt cautious relief as they breathed fresh air with family members at holiday events or shared human moments with strangers in need at local meal giveaways.
Near Lake Merritt, the mood was festive as several thousand people of all ages — some clad in turkey hats, tutus sprouting fake feathers or carrying loud bells to ring — poured into Eastshore Park to watch or take part in the first Turkey Trot in two years.
Anne Lopez, 73, watched on from the sidelines with her husband Rudy as their 10-year-old grandson ran the course. Their arrival at San Francisco Airport from Tucson marked the first time they had seen their son and his family since December 2019, and the pang of spending nearly two years apart was starting to sink in.
“It’s the best thing in the world to see your kids and your grandchildren — it’s just the best feeling in the world,” said Anne Lopez, 73, as tears sprang into her eyes. “Like, OK, we’re whole again.”
Not far away, a trio of Piedmont Avenue Elementary moms did jumping jacks by the lake to warm up as they waited for the race to start. For parent Jasmin Canfield, 40, Thanksgiving will still be smaller than usual because her 2-year-old son isn’t yet eligible for the vaccine and some of her family members haven’t gotten their shots.
“You need to be vaccinated and also following the guidelines, not like, vaccinated and licking doorknobs,” she said with a laugh. “People usually call and say like, ‘Hey, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?’ I haven’t had any of those calls.”
Two of Canfield’s relatives have died from COVID-19, and a handful of others have gotten ill. She plans to have a moment of silence at the dinner for those lost to the pandemic.
“Having that space to really think about how we really don’t have control over stuff, how people have been gone, have died — I’m thinking about that,” Canfield said.
Across the Bay Area, local church volunteers were thankful to celebrate a holiday in person, but this year’s occasion was also an opportunity to collectively process grief accumulated over the past two years.
Joanie O’Bryant of Concord had spent the morning volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Pittsburg, where she had helped give prepared meals to homeless residents and others in need. O’Bryant lost her 85-year-old father earlier this week, so it was the first Thanksgiving her family couldn’t spend with him.
On Thursday morning, O’Bryant, 64, was also awaiting roadside assistance over car problems that were keeping her from getting back home. But the annoying misfortune and graver loss of a loved one did not stop her from feeling gratitude.
“I’ve seen a difference in people’s lives,” O’Bryant said, reflecting on the past two years. “People appreciate each other more, families are closer now, and we’re spending more time together.”
Organizations throughout the region took the “giving” part of the holiday to heart. At All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, a line of at least 50 people already curled around the block before the church opened up for the noon turkey giveaway service hosted by LifeMoves and the Downtown Streets Team.
Inside, a row of volunteers loaded up trays with turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and stuffing, while others grabbed bagged lunches to hand to people in the growing line.
The small crew was prepared to feed a combined 500 people Thursday and Friday, said Kama Fletcher, Downtown Streets’ director of development.
“We all know that there is increased need. The number of people experiencing homelessness continues to grow, and the pandemic has worsened that,” Fletcher said. “We’re not in a recovery period.”
Travis Martin, 32, was one of the grateful people receiving a meal at All Saints Episcopal Church on Thursday. He has experienced homelessness off and on for the last few years; he has worked at various grocery stores but stopped searching for rooms to rent on Craigslist because the deposits are usually too high for him to pay.
After trekking out to California from Missouri three months ago, he slept outside an office building downtown before staying at LifeMoves’ Hotel de Zink in Palo Alto starting last week.
“I’m just super grateful that you guys such have an organized and put-together community that takes the time to put together things like this,” he said. Without the Thanksgiving meal, Martin added, “I probably would have been pretty hungry.”
Celebrations on Thursday highlighted a sense of safety among Bay Area residents who felt more confident embracing the fun with vaccines and boosters on their side. But some still carried leftover anxiety and uncertainty from a pandemic full of those feelings.
Lopez, who watched her grandson round the Turkey Trot course in Oakland, had more to think about than the all-vegetarian dinner that her son’s family had in store later in the day.
“We’ve been vaccinated. We’ve been boosted. We’ve gotten our flu shots. We wear masks. We have to get back to normal,” she said. “At some point we have to try.”