By Dan Whitcomb and Nathan Layne
(Reuters) - Americans marked a muted Thanksgiving Day holiday on Thursday, sometimes seeing family only by video after political leaders discouraged travel or large gatherings in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic.
Thanksgiving, typically celebrated with big family dinners, became the latest major event in American life to be altered or diminished by the coronavirus in 2020 as most U.S. states struggle with spiraling infections and deaths.
"All of a sudden I feel kind of lonely, I have to admit," said Janis Segal, 72, as she prepared to join family members in a Zoom call for Thanksgiving.
Eight months after the pandemic erupted across the United States most major cities remain under strict rules imposed by state and local officials restricting public gatherings, closing businesses and forbidding indoor dining at restaurants.
The U.S. Supreme Court late on Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional an order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo imposing severe restrictions on the number of people who could worship at churches and synagogues in the state.
The court, issuing its first major ruling since the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett by President Donald Trump, found that such rules were a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when other gatherings were allowed to take place.
Cuomo dismissed the court's ruling as "irrelevant" and suggested that justices were making a political gesture.
The traditional Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, which has marked the holiday for nearly a century, was scaled back significantly. The route was reduced from 2.5 miles to one block and balloon handlers were replaced by specially rigged vehicles. Spectators were forbidden from lining the streets.
Confined behind a metal barricade, Brian Campbell, a 55-year old native of Rockaway, New Jersey, called the parade "disappointing."
'ITS A LITTLE SAD'
Moriah Hargrave of Lafayette, Louisiana, who got as close as she could to the action near Macy's flagship store in midtown Manhattan with the hopes of seeing country singer Dolly Parton.
"We came to just knock out a few things on our bucket list for New York City," said Hargrave, 36. "It's a little sad to be this far away. But it's fun to be here."
The holiday is being celebrated at a time of severe economic strain for millions of Americans.
More than 20 million people are receiving some form of unemployment benefits, and a fresh wave of layoffs is expected as governors impose business restrictions in a bid to tamp down spiraling infections.
Asia Foreman, who co-founded a nonprofit with her sister to raise awareness about mental health issues, was working on Thursday afternoon to finish delivering 500 plates of chicken, macaroni and cheese, yams and greens in Washington, D.C.
"We wanted to feed as many people as possible so turkey wasn't in the budget," she said. "A lot of people haven't been able to find new jobs to provide for their families because of COVID. It's not their fault."
U.S. hospitalizations for COVID-19 reached a record of more than 89,000 on Wednesday, and experts warned that holiday gatherings could lead to another spike in cases and deaths.
Despite advice from the Centers for Disease Control to stay home, nearly 6 million Americans traveled by air from Friday to Wednesday, according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. That number is less than half of the same period last year.
Many Americans have not seen their loved ones for months and see the annual get-together as important enough to outweigh the possible risks.
Margaret Bullard, a public defender in Atlanta, said she and her husband have taken every precaution since the onset of the pandemic, which came soon after the birth of her 9-month-old son. They drove from their home in Marietta, Georgia, to North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with her in-laws, who have been equally fastidious in limiting potential exposure to COVID-19.
"As much as we would like to see some other family members, we know that we would be taking a much bigger risk by doing so," said Bullard, who is co-administrator of a Facebook group for "Covid-conscious" Georgians.
(Reporting by Andrew Kelly and Angela Moore in New York, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Hannah McKay in Washington, D.C., Emily Elconin in West Bloomfield, Michigan and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Aurora Ellis)