“Hurt, angry, sad and lost”: Coloradans endure pandemic Thanksgiving

The rich incense of browning meats, bubbling casseroles and baked goods is Loa Esquilin’s front-runner for favorite Thanksgiving feature, but the holiday fragrance will smell slightly less sweet this year as Esquilin celebrates solo in hopes of keeping her loved ones virus-free.

“Believe it or not, the day is not about the food for me,” she said. “It’s the smells. It reminds of family and warmth and childhood.”

Esquilin, 36, leads outreach for Denver’s Office of Emergency Management, so she knows all too well the importance of following public health guidance this year, even as she longs for a holiday spent surrounded by loved ones and laughter.

The Centers for Disease Control urged Americans not to gather outside their households for turkey-filled festivities due to the risks of spreading the highly contagious novel coronavirus. The state health department asked Coloradans to keep Thanksgiving hullabaloo to their immediate households as overwhelming COVID-19 cases cause hospitals to face staff shortages and hit ICU capacity. AAA forecasted the largest yearly decline in Thanksgiving travel in Colorado since the Great Recession, projecting 897,000 travelers about two weeks ago, which was expected to decline as prospective travelers monitor the public health landscape.

Thanksgiving tables are sure to look more sparse this year with Coloradans foregoing planes, trains and automobiles amid a nationwide and statewide pandemic surge. For some, staying home may dredge up feelings of isolation. Others may turn to technology or alms-giving to soothe lingering loneliness.

The undeniably offbeat holiday year is an opportunity for Americans to sacrifice a good time for the greater good with lessons of the original Thanksgiving looming large above us all: Outsiders gathering and infecting Native Americans with deadly diseases does not have to be a theme repeated.

“It’s not worth it”

Esquilin made the heartbreaking decision to stay home by herself for Thanksgiving after consulting with her Denver family, the Lovetts. Puerto Rico is home for Esquilin, but when she can’t make the trip to see her dad and extended family, the Lovett family, who she met at the gym a few years ago, always takes her in.

“With me so being alone in Denver, having a base family to go for the holidays has always been super important for me,” Esquilin said. “Every year we get together, have great meals, everybody brings a dish and there’s holiday music, games, lots of wine. It really feels like home. This year, as a family, we talked and decided to cancel Thanksgiving. It was a very, very hard decision.”

To lift her spirits, Esquilin will fill her house with the fragrance of food, Puerto Rico style. She plans to roast a pork, cook rice, macaroni salad and other delights that remind her — and her nose — of better times.

Esquilin will do video calls with her family in Puerto Rico and then her Colorado family, making sure to ogle the legendary Lovett family mashed potatoes and maybe watch a card game. When Esquilin logs off, the quiet settling over her home, she plans on eating and praying that others are making the same sacrifice to help save lives.

“It’s really hard, but I’ve already lost friends to COVID,” Esquilin said. “When I think about breaking the rules, I’m just like, ‘it’s not worth it.’”

“The right thing to do”

Allen Cowgill’s 70-year-old father survived cancer. Cowgill doesn’t want preventable carelessness over a dinner to jeopardize his dad’s health.

That’s why Cowgill, his wife and their two young children opted for an alternative Thanksgiving this year. The crew picked up turkey sandwiches from Panera Bread in early November, when the weather was unseasonably warm, laid out blankets about 25 feet apart in Cowgill’s father’s Lakewood backyard and dined al fresco. They wore masks when they weren’t eating, stayed distanced and still got to gobble up turkey in each other’s company.

“Years from now, I want to be able to tell my kids that our family did everything we could to be part of the solution, to keep not just our family safe but to keep our neighbors from getting sick,” Cowgill said. “We all want to be around a table together. It was sad that was our Thanksgiving, but it felt like the right thing to do.”

As a silver lining, Cowgill hopes to use Thanksgiving Day as a chance to have video calls with family members across the country whom he normally doesn’t get time to spend the holidays with.

“Unknown in the middle of nowhere”

Cooper Barnard-Mayers’ silver lining: The Denver vegetarian won’t be in the presence of a turkey this Thanksgiving.

The 24-year-old moved to Denver shortly before the pandemic hit. Since, she’s found herself working remotely as a social media coordinator in a city she hasn’t had the chance to explore due to COVID-19.

“I’m unknown in the middle of nowhere,” Barnard-Mayers said.

Thanksgivings of yore have meant gathering in Barnard-Mayers’ small Vermont village with her family and friends, sharing potluck meals, childhood memories and the annual turkey trot run. This year, Barnard-Mayers’ parents gave her a Whole Foods gift card so she can choose her own Thanksgiving adventure.

“My specialty is normally breakfast foods, so we’ll see how this goes,” Barnard-Mayers said. “I’m probably just going to buy something funky and vegetarian to try to make the day a little bit special, but I’m going to be FaceTiming different members of my family every single hour.

“It feels depressing,” Barnard-Mayers said of spending the holiday alone. “I don’t think people who have roommates or live with their families understand how intense the isolation is when you’re living alone this year. What I do like about Denver is all the opportunities to get outdoors. At least I don’t feel isolated from the natural world.”

June Gruber, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Colorado Boulder, said the pandemic has posed unique and enduring stressors for many, including holiday loneliness. However, the science of happiness can help, Gruber said.

Cultivating moments of gratitude for others can keep us connected to them and boost our own positive emotions, physical health and long-term psychological functioning, Gruber said.

“Consider taking a moment each day to recall who you are grateful for in your life and why, even if you cannot be close to them physically during the holidays,” Gruber said.

Still, it’s important for individuals to accept their emotions as they are, Gruber said.

“Feeling upset, lonely and frustrated is a normative response to the uncertain world we are in,” Gruber said. “Don’t expect or feel distressed if you are not overjoyous. Know your emotions are keeping you in connection with this unusual world.”

Support from six-feet apart

Taj Cooke’s spirit thrives on surmounting isolation and building community — a feat made extra-challenging in the COVID-19 era when social distance reigns supreme.

The Denver chef is fulfilled by preparing and sharing his food with others, particularly those in need. Last year, Cooke cooked up more than 500 meals with the help of donations, other chefs and volunteers, and this year he plans to more than double that.

Cooke said he knows struggle from his turbulent childhood, where he faced homelessness, loneliness and juvenile detention centers. When the pandemic hit, Biju’s Little Curry Shop — where Cooke was newly hired as a chef — closed.

“People have been losing their jobs, their homes,” Cooke said. “It’s crazy. I was one of those individuals for quite some time until I was able to get back on my feet in some ways. I know the pain. People right now are hurt, angry, sad and lost. By reaching out to our neighbors and giving them a warm meal, letting them know that someone gives a damn — that’s what’s important.

With the help of countless sponsors, donations and volunteers, Cooke will spend Thanksgiving boxing up food his team has prepared throughout the week and sending it out to various homeless shelters, ministries and victims of the East Troublesome fire.

The year has been tough for Cooke and fellow members of the food scene as the pandemic has taken a severe toll on restaurants and small business owners, but serving those who are less fortunate with the help of his loved ones fills Cooke’s heart in a way not even the virus can thwart.

“As humans, if we know we have support, we can find the strength to move forward,” Cooke said. “Right now, we all need to be putting our hand on our neighbor’s shoulder — even if you’re six feet apart — to let them know you’re there to help.”

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