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A Lonely New York Holiday: ‘Miss This One and Be Alive for the Next’

Cecily Smith, right, said she would be spending this Thanksgiving alone in her apartment in Harlem. Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

In a city where the holiday has special significance, a ban on gatherings has left some New Yorkers planning lonely feasts.

Though her mother lives in Arizona, Cecily Smith typically spends Thanksgiving in New York City with friends who feel like family.

Some years, they shared holiday meals at vibrant restaurants. Other times, they held potlucks in cramped apartments, trading recipes and traditions. More recently, Ms. Smith helped cook an eclectic menu to celebrate a Nigerian friend’s first Thanksgiving.

But with the country in the grip of a surging pandemic, Ms. Smith will spend Thanksgiving this year alone in her Harlem apartment, making herself cocktails and binge-watching Netflix. Her friends, she said, plan to do the same.

“I know I’m going to be lonely. It is lonely. This is a whole lonely experience.”

said Ms. Smith, 46, who has lived in the city for about 20 years.

The pandemic has altered holiday plans all over the United States this year. But in a bustling city where traditions often extend beyond family to bring friends, acquaintances, castoffs and transplants around the table, the loneliness can especially gnaw.

To be alone in New York City on Thanksgiving is to be all too aware of the once-vibrant scene that no longer waits on the other side of the door.

With a second wave bearing down, officials have urged Americans not to travel, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo limited private gatherings to 10 people for the foreseeable future and Mayor Bill de Blasio implored people to skip the crowded feasts that generally mark the holiday.

A number of city residents, though not all, will heed those warnings, canceling their annual pilgrimages home. Others who typically stay put — whether for economic reasons, or to avoid relatives’ interrogations about their job prospects, rent payments and love lives — have found their longstanding plans canceled or altered.

Sidd Dalal, who is researching the effects of Covid-19 on the brain, chose to forego a family Thanksgiving gathering. Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

So on Thanksgiving, a holiday marked by coming together, many city residents now face the wrenching prospect of a holiday alone and isolated in a place whose social nature is a top draw.

“I’m unemployed, broke and alone.”

said Pemberton Roach, a musician who usually books gigs the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a busy evening for nightlife.

With venues shuttered, the pandemic has left Mr. Roach jobless, and his typical gathering of friends was canceled because one of the hosts has Covid-19. So instead,

“I’ll most likely be eating hot dogs and drinking a bottle of Jim Beam at my coffee table.”

he said.

The city’s holiday staples will also be missing. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has cut its route to one block, putting an end to sidewalk crowds and balloon-watching parties. Movie theaters, long an antidote for holiday loneliness, remain closed. Restaurants have limited capacity, a rainy forecast does not favor outdoor dining and many people remain uncomfortable eating indoors. Even the best-laid alternate plans have disintegrated. With the pandemic never quite abating, Kelsey O’Hara, 32, never expected to leave her home in Brooklyn this Thanksgiving and head to her parents’ orchard in Pennsylvania. Instead, she and some friends planned a smaller meal in Bay Ridge, with the requirement that all attendees test negative for coronavirus in advance.

Ms. O'Hara tested negative last Wednesday. Two days later, the gathering’s host called the celebration off, deciding that the risk of exposure was still too high.

Ms. O’Hara — who also spent her birthday alone this week — has unsuccessfully tried to find a new arrangement. She is not sure if a last-minute gathering is even worth the risk.

“I’m scared to be alone. But then, I don’t know, what’s the other option? Possibly getting sick?”

Ms. O’Hara said.

New York City residents have reported struggling with pandemic-related loneliness and isolation since March, when officials shut down the city and state.

Dr. Victoria Ngo, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, conducted a survey of 1,000 New Yorkers in the spring that showed 35 to 45 percent were at risk for depression and anxiety throughout those months, when the pandemic was at its peak in the city.

The holidays, too, generally brought an increased mental health risk for those who will be spending them alone, she added.

“They’re thinking I should have family, I should have friends, I should be doing all these happy things — it triggers those sorts of expectations. And then there’s a disappointment that I think would make things difficult.”

Dr. Ngo said.

Dr. Ngo encouraged people struggling with isolation to try and reflect on what they were grateful for and to reach out to others, whether via phone, FaceTime or Zoom.

Geneva Thomas, whose mother died a year ago, said this would be her first Thanksgiving alone. Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

The gulf between holiday expectations and reality will likely be widened by the pandemic. Dr. Sidd Dalal, a resident at Northwell Health, had planned this year to bring his fiancée to his family’s gathering for the first time.

Instead, Dr. Dalal, 31, who is researching the neurological effects of Covid-19, will be alone in Downtown Brooklyn, grabbing premade food from Trader Joe’s and possibly a rotisserie chicken. His fiancée will be in Toronto with her family, and his parents will be at home in a small town in Georgia.

“Someone new and important is coming into my family. I wanted to create that togetherness.”

he said of his fiancée.

Still, as a health care worker studying the virus’s deleterious effects, he thought it was important not to travel and risk infecting himself or his family.

“I’d rather miss this one and be alive for the next.”

Dr. Dalal said.

Others were determined to embrace the pandemic’s restrictions and view them in a different light. Geneva Thomas, 37, typically spends Thanksgiving with her mother, who visits New York City from Detroit. In years past, the two went shopping, cooked together and tried to see a Broadway show.

Ms. Thomas’s mother died last November. This year’s celebration will be her first alone. But the pandemic’s restrictions eased the pressure of attending a gathering, allowing her instead to grieve in private, she said.

Ms. Thomas declined invitations and planned to spend the holiday in her apartment in Weehawken, N.J., cooking the dishes her mother used to make.

“I’ll just make a plate for my mom and for me, and put on some music — her favorite artist is Luther Vandross. And I’ll just reflect and hope for healing.”

Ms. Thomas said.

Tanen Clark, who moved to Manhattan from Connecticut three years ago, was also focusing on the silver lining. She was disappointed not to spend the holiday eating noodle kugel and turkey with family in Chicago but had been excitedly browsing Instagram in search of a fancy meal she could order from a restaurant.

If she got lonely, Ms. Clark, 31, said, she could always step outside her Upper East Side apartment, where the bustle of New York City meant she was bound to see some people.

“I’d much rather be alone here than alone in Connecticut.”

she said.

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