People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

It’s unlikely most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, carolling and travel, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead.

As the pandemic’s second wave maintained its grip in many parts of the country, political leaders acknowledged this week that recent limits on social gatherings, restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues in some hot spots have not significantly changed the trajectory of COVID-19 infections.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo and Quebec Premier Francois Legault were among those urging Canadians to step up efforts that could flatten the curve and allow for some modified festivities by Dec. 25.

The warning followed weeks of unclear messages and confusing advice that likely played a role in cases now being linked to Thanksgiving weekend, says Toronto infectious diseases expert Dr. Andrew Morris, who stresses the importance of frank talk about the severity of the pandemic.

“We need to be able to say when there’s uncertainty but we also can’t have comments like (Monday) at the provincial press conference, when the Ontario health minister said that there are some hints of things on a decline (in Ontario hot spots). That is very misleading information and all it does is it sows doubt in the public,” says Morris, a physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

“Or even to suggest that we’re still waiting to see the effect of our measures, (that) it’s too early to tell, when I think everyone around us — most people — should recognize that things are still rising substantially.”

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford countered bleak outlooks on Christmas by noting “people get tired, but I’ve got to give them hope.”

“Let’s all work together and let’s make Christmas happen. Let’s always think of the glass as half full,” said Ford. “Let’s not think the glass is half empty — we can do it. We will do it by working together.”

Morris says it’s unfair to impose a timeline on hoped-for victories, pointing to many uncertainties that make it hard to predict what infections will look like in December. He also questions how accurate Ontario’s data was to begin with, noting he continues to hear about some people waiting days for a test — a problem that would make it “near impossible” to get a handle on COVID-19’s spread.

But he doesn’t expect much will change over the next two months.

“Fast-forward six weeks, we’re going to be seeing waves pretty substantially rising, if not cresting,” Morris predicts.

“I would be absolutely shocked if we aren’t seeing really high peaks in six weeks’ time.”

The colder temperatures and shorter days have coincided with mounting public frustration over months of economic, scholastic and social upheaval, which in recent weeks escalated to instances of outright defiance of public health directives.

Manitoba’s premier and chief provincial public health officer this week delivered blistering rebukes of infected people brazenly disobeying containment rules, while a coalition of Quebec gym owners initially threatened to defy extended lockdown measures before vowing Wednesday to protest instead.

Trudeau acknowledged frustrations while cautioning the nation that “unless we’re really, really careful, there may not be the kinds of family gatherings we want to have at Christmas.”

And while Legault recognized the “vast majority” of Quebecers have complied with public health guidance, he said it was “not enough” and that “big parties for Christmas” were unlikely.

In order for public health measures to hit home, the advice must be clear and consistent, and politicians should be transparent about their rationale for social restrictions, says infectious disease epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite.

She says it’s far more helpful to offer concrete examples of what people should do, than admonish them for what they should not do.

“The reality is we know that people are going to bend the rules a little bit. First of all, give people creative ideas of how they might celebrate the holidays,” says Tuite, a University of Toronto professor who especially wanted holiday travel guidance for university students living away from home.

Still, Tuite says tapping into shared hopes can be a powerful motivator to keep people committed to COVID-19 sacrifices: “We need something to look forward to.”

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place, including bustling Christmas markets, Santa Claus parades, mall photos with Santa, blockbuster movie releases, and holiday concerts and performances.

But that doesn’t mean Christmas is cancelled, says health economist and policy analyst Peter Berman of the University of British Columbia, who suggests a near-normal celebration might be possible in the least-impacted regions.

In the same way many Canadians found ways to celebrate a scaled-back Thanksgiving and are now modifying their Halloween fun, Berman encourages people to focus on accepting a new reality — one he expects will curtail social gatherings well into the new year.

“We should probably turn our attention not so much to lamenting that we won’t have the Christmas we’re all used to, but rather thinking, ‘How can we make the best of enjoying the one we’re going to have together?’” says Berman.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 1,731 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday

The province’s central zone has 992 active cases

(Photo submitted)
Ermineskin citizen graduates vet school, is part of busy practice

Dr. Justin Hodgson is rolling up his sleeves in Meadow Lake, Sask.

Jeffery Kraft. Photo submitted
Family of Jeffery Kraft feels ‘robbed’ after one accused discharged

Family of victim responds to preliminary hearing in homicide case

Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett is trying to enlist support from other municipalities for more equitable provincial funding for small and rural municipalities.
Photo from Town of Ponoka
Ponoka arena closing, Santa Claus Parade officially cancelled

Town of Ponoka announces new COVID-19 restrictions

A person enters a building as snow falls in Ottawa, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. Ottawa has been successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19 during its second wave thanks to the city’s residents who have been wearing masks and staying home, said Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
People to thank for Ottawa’s success with curbing COVID-19: health officer

The city’s chief medical officer said much of the credit goes to the people who live in Ottawa

Ridge Meadows RCMP are developing a new strategic plan for the detachment. (Phil McLachlan)
UPDATED: Male wanted for Montana First Nation shooting arrested

Darcy Cattleman located in Conklin, Alta.

The Red Deer Games Foundation has made changes to its grant program as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo supplied)
Red Deer Games Foundation adjusts grant program due to COVID-19 pandemic

The foundation postponed the spring 2020 grant program due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Gold medallists in the ice dance, free dance figure skating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, pose during their medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Charlie Riedel
Olympic champions Virtue, Moir and Tewksbury among 114 Order of Canada inductees

Moir and Virtue catapulted to national stardom with their gold-medal performances at the Winter Olympics in 2018

Shoppers line up in front of a shop on Montreal’s Saint-Catherine Street in search of Black Friday deals in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Black Friday shopping in a pandemic: COVID-19 closes some stores, sales move online

Eric Morris, head of retail at Google Canada, says e-commerce in Canada has doubled during the pandemic.

skip2
Rimbey Christian School students experience the joy of giving

Grades three and four students raised $2,000 for Somalian children

Most Read