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

Just Posted

West Shore RCMP pulled over a 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee on Nov. 23 after noting that it didn’t appear safe for the road. (West Shore RCMP)
West Shore RCMP pull over vehicle held together by tape and cargo strap

RCMP deemed the vehicle unsafe for the road and had it towed away

Picture of two swans leaving the Cowichan estuary moments before one was shot out of the sky. (Submitted photo)
Petition to stop hunting in Cowichan estuary after swan shot

Hunting allowed in area, some seeking to change that after ‘act of sickening, malicious destruction’

Over 6,000 customers were affected by the power outage that started on Nov. 17. (BC Hydro photo)
BC Hydro crews worked 16 hour days to turn the North Island’s power back on

BC Hydro runs one transmission line to Northern Vancouver Island so there was no backup line.

Gordon Viberg was the fifth person to be diagnosed with COVID-19 at the Royal Jubilee Hospital. (Provided by the Victoria Hospitals Foundation)
Islander awakens from the ordeal of COVID-19

Gordon Viberg, Royal Jubilee’s ‘patient 5’ recalls being so weak he couldn’t get out of bed

Artist Daniel Cline discusses his sculpture, Harmony Humpbacks, during the June 20 walking tour of Oak Bay’s 2019 ArtsAlive sculptures. Harmony Humpbacks was purchased by Oak Bay as the 2019 people’s choice winner and is permanently installed at the Beach Drive entrance to Willows Park. (Kevin Murdoch Photo)
Influx of donated art a ‘fantastic problem to have,’ says Oak Bay mayor

Oak Bay goes from zero to 10 permanent art pieces since 2015

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

Bystanders attend to a cyclist who is knocked to the pavement of Oak Bay Avenue. Witnesses say the cyclist was knocked off their bike in a dooring incident on Oak Bay Avenue at Fell Street at around 12:40 p.m. on Wednesday. 
(Daniel Opden Dries Photo)
VicPD tickets driver for ‘dooring’ cyclist on Oak Bay Avenue

Incident occurred at Oak Bay Avenue and Fell Street

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

A Nanaimo driver was sentenced Monday for fatally striking a high school student with his vehicle in 2019. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo driver sentenced after motor vehicle incident that killed teen last year

Brandon Geoffrey Murdoch fined and prohibited from driving for two years

Two of the weapons seized in a Nov. 8 traffic stop in Black Creek. Photo supplied by RCMP
RCMP seize guns, drugs in Black Creek traffic stop

Two arrested in connection with incident

Kwalikum Secondary School. (SD69 photo)
Schools superintendent says protocols don’t change after COVID-19 exposure at Qualicum Beach high school

Elder: ‘We were assured by the Health Authority that the school is safe’

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

Most Read