It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — a very small, small Christmas.
Many provinces, including B.C., Alberta and parts of Ontario have strict COVID-19 social gathering limits that will impact the holiday season. In many of those areas, indoor and outdoor social gatherings are banned except for with members of the household you live in, or one or two exceptions for people living alone.
In recent weeks, health officials have clarified or confirmed how those restrictions impact holiday gatherings, particularly for Christmas. Many Canadians are still planning to travel, or at least gather over the holiday season, and some provinces are even making exceptions for the holiday.
Quebec will even close all non-essential businesses in the two weeks following Christmas to account for any holiday spread.
But can you travel or gather for Christmas? And should you? Here’s what you need to know.
What are the provinces saying about Christmas gatherings?
Last week, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said the province is advising people to limit their holiday gatherings to only their immediate household and to keep group numbers down.
“I know there’s that Christmas song ‘there’s no place like home for the holidays’,” he said. “We mean home and stay home in your household, that’s what we’re asking for.”
While there are formal restrictions on the province’s red and orange zone areas, he said that limiting holiday gatherings to just your household is a “good precaution to take at this time.”
In B.C., social gathering limits apply to the holidays as well.
“In the next few weeks we need to hold the line and continue to bend our curve,” said chief medical officer of health Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“I understand that for many of us, this will mean celebrating the coming important holidays in a different and smaller way than what we may be used to. We can, though, still be festive. We can still connect with family and with friends in a safe and virtual way.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he was reluctant to advise against Christmas gatherings, but it must be done.
“If we relax the public health measures to permit large family gatherings [...], we will without a shadow of a doubt, see a large increase in hospitalizations and fatalities. We simply cannot let this Christmas turn into a tragedy for many families,” he said.
“So, with great reluctance, we are asking Albertans to limit their holiday gatherings to the members of their household or to two close contacts for people who live by themselves.”
Of Canada’s most populated and hardest-hit provinces, Quebec is the outlier, as Christmas gatherings will be permitted with some restrictions. After waffling earlier in December on Christmas restrictions, Premier Francois Legault and chief medical officer Horacio Arruda said Tuesday that small outdoor gatherings of up to eight people will be permitted in the province’s red zones.
The gatherings will only be permitted on public property — so no backyard campfires where people may enter private homes. People who live alone will be permitted to join the bubbles of others.
“If you do have some activities to do, have them outside, and then the risk is much lower,” Arruda said.
Legault suggested activities like ski classes or ice hockey as ideal outdoor activities.
The province also plans a two-week shutdown following Christmas, likely to account for any transmission over the holiday. Non-essential businesses across the province will be shut down from Dec. 25 to Jan. 11. It’s unclear if the closure will only affect the province’s red zones.
Can I travel in or out of province to visit family?
Williams advised that travel in and out of Ontario should be “minimized” unless it is essential. He said if you are travelling from a high risk area to a lower one, such as cottage country, bring all of your supplies with you in order to minimize contact with the local community.
As for inter-provincial travel, Williams says he “prefers you didn’t.”
“We haven’t put any strict rules around that,” he said.
“We can, though, still be festive. We can still connect with family and with friends in a safe and virtual way.”
Earlier this month, Henry said she can’t formally mandate travel in and out of the province for the holidays, but she strongly advises against it.
“I cannot stop you by an order [from] getting into your car or going on to a plane,” she said.
“But I’m asking in the strongest of terms for us to stay put, to stay in our communities and to protect our communities.”
What if everyone “quarantines” before and after?
In Ontario, Williams reiterated that families must be “very careful,” even if a university student is quarantining off site before returning home for the holidays, to ensure they don’t bring anything to their family or back to the university after the holidays.
Alberta’s Dr. Deena Hinshaw warned that ideas of what “quarantine means vary, and may not be at the level required to stop the virus from spreading.
“We are really concerned that if we provide those kinds of (isolation) suggestions, people may define that kind of quarantine or the safety measures in a different way, and it’s possible that we may see — as we saw at Thanksgiving —a significant acceleration of cases,” she said.
Henry warned that no matter how careful you are self-directed “quarantines” before and after travel are not “foolproof.” Regular trips to the grocery store don’t count as self-quarantining, nor does getting on a crowded airplane.
“There are challenges,” she said. “Not everybody understands the same meaning of ‘quarantine’ and takes the same precautions and you may be at risk.”
She said if you do decide to go that route, particularly if you plan on being around anyone older or immunocompromised, take extra precautions.
“Particularly if someone’s alone and you want to be with them this holiday season, then make sure you keep your distances, wear masks when you’re close together, take some extra precautions to keep them safe,” she said.
So hunker down with your immediate household and take part in a low-key holiday this season. With the vaccine on the horizon, next year will be a lot more merry and bright.