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Omicron variant casts doubt on Canadians’ hopes for a Christmas comeback

Festivities may have to be scaled back as Omicron stokes concerns about safety of holiday travel, gatherings
This Dec. 2, 2021 photo shows Main Street in Columbia, S.C., the temporary home of Miracle on Main pop-up Christmas bar. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Tracy Glantz, The State

Megan Scheffers waited until July to celebrate Christmas with her kids after the COVID-19 pandemic kept them apart last winter, but she says decorating candy log cabins just wasn’t the same in the dead of summer.

She was hoping to make up for missed traditions this year as two of her three children booked mid-December tickets to fly to Nova Scotia from the Netherlands, where they live with their father.

But as the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus threatens to upend the holiday season, Scheffers said she’s worried her 12-year-old and nine-year-old may not make it to Halifax to open their presents.

“All of the decorations, they’re still packed away, because I wanted to pull them out when they arrive so we can do it together,” Scheffers said.

“Last year, I didn’t even put a tree up. Is this going to be year number two without a tree … and without my children?”

Scheffers is among many Canadians whose holiday plans hang in the balance as mounting anxiety about the Omicron variant dampens excitement for a vaccine-protected comeback of Christmas merriment.

Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at University of Saskatchewan, said winter festivities may have to be scaled back as Omicron stokes concerns about the safety of holiday travel and gatherings.

But with so much still unknown about the virus mutation, Muhajarine said there’s still hope of salvaging the holiday spirit, encouraging revellers to see how the situation unfolds before scrapping their celebrations.

“I think it’s prudent to take a more cautious, measured approach,” he said. “But wait and see closer to Christmas Day or New Year’s Day before you finalize those plans.”

Some scientists have suggested Omicron could be more contagious than other strains of the virus, but Muhajarine said it could take weeks to determine the implications of the new variant, including whether it causes severe illness and whether it can overcome immunity provided by vaccination or infection.

He added that while Omicron has been linked to a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, it’s too early to predict how the variant will spread in Canada, which has a much higher rate of vaccination.

What is clear is that the uncertainty could pose complications for those planning to spend the holidays abroad now that Canada and a host of other countries have tightened border measures in response to the variant’s spread, said Muhajarine, warning that international travellers risk getting tangled in testing and quarantine requirements to reach their destination.

Visiting family and friends within Canada is a safer bet, he said, but he suggested that visitors take rapid antigen tests before they arrive and after they leave as an added precaution.

Muhajarine said hosts should also be prepared to rearrange their Christmas dinner tables as provinces roll out their COVID-19 policies for the holiday season.

New Brunswick entered the first phase of its so-called winter action plan on Sunday, which allows for indoor household gatherings of up to 20 people, but the province has advised against inviting individuals who have chosen not to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Ontario officials have indicated that they intend to stick with their 25-person limit on indoor get-togethers. Quebec is expected to issue its holiday recommendations this week, but Premier François Legault has signalled that he hopes to increase indoor gathering limits to 20 or 25 people, up from the current cap of 10.

For his part, Muhajarine endorsed even more intimate celebrations with single-digit guest lists, and making full vaccination a condition of attendance, to reduce the risk of making this Christmas a loved one’s last.

“That is how we can have a safe and smart Christmas this year, and hopefully, next year it will be different.”

If that sentiment sounds familiar, it may be because it echoes a common refrain among public health officials who for nearly two years have been entreating Canadians to make short-term sacrifices in the service of a brighter future.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at University of Toronto Scarborough, worries that the emergence of the Omicron variant just in time for the holidays may mark a tipping point in people’s patience for such promises, hardening pandemic fatigue into “depression.”

“We thought we were finally going to get the chance to have a Christmas. If that gets taken away from us, I think it’s a little extra insult to the injury,” said Joordens.

“I think we’re starting to feel a hint of these depressive feelings that nothing we can do really changes anything, and that’s a scary road to start going down.”

Alexandra Martino, a 29-year-old social media manager in London, said she’s determined to maintain her holiday cheer as she prepares to fly across the pond to see her family in Toronto for the first time since last Christmas. This despite knowing there’s a chance that Omicron could usher in a new wave of holiday disruptions in the week leading up to her flight.

“I just have to stay positive and optimistic, and just keep thinking, ‘I’m totally going home. I’m totally going home,’” until something shows up and says, ‘You actually cannot.’”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press