Covid prompts a shift in free Thanksgiving meal plans around New Hampshire

But with cases surging in state, providers of free dinners still aim to serve

Thanksgiving 2020 1200For the last 30 years, the Windmill Restaurant has served a free Thanksgiving dinner to the community in and around Concord and this year will be no different, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Owner Kosmas Smirnioudis never thought of canceling the tradition, which last year served more than 1,000 meals. But he understands that this will be a new experience for him and his staff.

“I really don’t know what to expect this year,” Smirnioudis said about the plans to do strictly takeout. “I hope it all goes nice and smoothly.”

The restaurant will prepare 72 turkeys to go along with 300 pounds of mashed potatoes and squash, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pie. It is asking those who want a delivery to call well ahead of time to ensure they have the manpower to fill the orders.

“We are going to do takeout and delivery within about a five to 10-mile radius.”

The traditional Thanksgiving gathering, whether at a shelter, soup kitchen, local church, restaurant or grandma’s house, is among the long list of casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel is expected to be sharply curtailed and those big gatherings of extended family are on the endangered list this year.

‘Takeout is safest’

With cases surging in New Hampshire and elsewhere, those who offer a free meal won’t be serving sit-down dinners.

“Our board of directors decided to do takeout only,” said Cindy Stevens, executive director of the Claremont Soup Kitchen where between 150 and 200 are usually served each year at the sit-down affair. “I don’t think we can properly social distance with that number. So takeout is the safest and best way to do it.”

The takeout process has been fine-tuned over the last eight months since Covid struck in mid-March, so adding the Thanksgiving meal to the mix will not be a logistical problem for many organizations that serve free meals to those in need.

In Laconia, Pastor Wilson Neil of the Congregational Church said takeout is how they will serve about 100 meals on Thanksgiving, which is how nearly all the organizations contacted said they planned to do.

One exception is the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter, where Executive Director Michael Reinke said they plan to accommodate some who prefer a sit-down meal.

“We are going to do a mix,” Reinke said.  “Most will probably be takeout but we will let people come in who need to be at the soup kitchen. Thanksgiving is usually not a big day for us because most people go with family. But this year could be different. We will be prepared.”

Preparation of the meal will require volunteers, and Reinke said they are looking for younger people to pitch in as the average age of volunteers who help regularly at the soup kitchen are 65 and older.

“If someone is not in a high-risk category, they are welcome,” said Reinke.

Travel changes

The Fraternal Order of Eagles in Keene is doing both pickup and delivery for the roughly 100 free Thanksgiving meals they serve each year.

“We still have to be cautious because of the pandemic, so our staff will wear face masks, gloves and wash their hands,” said Eagles member Heather MacNeil.

Across New Hampshire, health officials are urging people to avoid big family gathering because of the coronavirus risk, and the Centers for Disease Control is echoing that advice, suggesting celebrating virtually or only with members of your own household to reduce the risk of spread.

Travel is also expected to be curtailed, especially airline flights. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is always labeled the busy travel day of the year, but not this year. Some estimates say air travel could be down as much as 60 percent this year.

Sarah Sucharzweski, owner of Wheelock Travel in Claremont, said she is booking holiday travel plans but not nearly at the rate of years past.

“I have had inquiries and some reservations so people are definitely flying,” said Sucharzweski, adding that the airlines have instituted a lot of safety protocols to protect passengers.

Those who want to travel have to be flexible and open-minded because there are fewer flights, she said.

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