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

File photo
Castlegar sees spike in crime over winter

Local RCMP report increase in calls

Kirk Duff is running for mayor in the upcoming Castlegar byelection Photo: Submitted
Third candidate enters Castlegar mayor’s race

Kirk Duff previously served 18 years as a city councillor

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
43 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

368 cases in the region remain active

The Kaslo Outdoor Recreation and Trail Society will build a trail on Mount Buchanan, seen here with society secretary Stuart Heard, with support from Columbia Basin Trust. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay trails receive Columbia Basin Trust funding

Several locations in the West Kootenay are undergoing upgrades

A member of the Avalanche Canada South Rockies field team gathers important snowpack data that is used to produce daily avalanche forecasts for the region. Photo by Jennifer Coulter.
Warming temperatures increase avalanche risk heading into the weekend

Warm temperatures impact conditions, human behaviour

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A Cowichan Valley mom is wondering why masks haven’t been mandated for elementary schools. (Metro Creative photo)
B.C. mom frustrated by lack of mask mandate for elementary students

“Do we want to wait until we end up like Fraser Health?”

(Pxhere)
B.C. research reveals how pandemic has changed attitudes towards sex, health services

CDC survey shows that 35 per cent of people were worried about being judged

Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)
#Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit small B.C. towns and beyond

Canadians find their butter was getting harder, blame palm oil in part one of this series

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon speaks in the B.C. legislature, describing work underway to make a small business and tourism aid package less restrictive, Dec. 10, 2020. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends deadline for tourism, small business COVID-19 grants

Business owners expect months more of lost revenues

The Black Diamond / PIEPS Avalanche transceivers being recalled. (Image courtesy of PIEPS)
Black Diamond, PIEPS issue recall for avalanche transceivers

PIEPS said that avalanche incidents in 2017 and 2020 had prompted the recall, but defended the product

Most Read