Is Seeing Friends & Family This Holiday Season A Totally Awful Idea?

Photographed by Erika Long.
It’s beginning to look a lot like… a very different holiday season. As second-wave COVID-19 case counts rise across Canada — a situation experts worry will get worse — the country’s top doc Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam is urging people to avoid non-essential outings as much as possible. And many provincial leaders are asking residents to ho-ho-ho with only their immediate household.
“It's important for us to acknowledge how difficult this holiday season is going to be,” Dr. Nitin Mohan, an infectious diseases surveillance expert from Western University, tells Refinery29. “It's not going to be our norm.”
Still, the season isn’t without joy. There are ways to safely celebrate and overload on shortbread cookies — despite the ongoing pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about COVID and Christmas 2020.

Give it to me straight: Can I go home for the holidays?

'Tis the season for spending time with loved ones, but you might have to avoid seeing them IRL depending on where you live in Canada. Dr. Tam recently tweeted that “holiday gatherings and celebrations will vary based on the spread of #COVID19 in your community” and advised checking local public health guidelines to understand size limits on gatherings and what events (whether it’s your town’s annual tree lighting or holiday craft market) are a no-go.
In Ontario, for example, Premier Doug Ford is urging people to celebrate the holidays only with those they live with. Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, is basically begging folks to avoid travelling, especially to COVID-19 hotspots like Toronto and Montreal. (That’s especially true if you’re flying: The federal government is asking everyone to avoid all non-essential jaunts within Canada, and Tam advises not to travel outside the country unless absolutely necessary, too.)
In B.C., non-essential travel was banned until Dec. 7, with the province now advising against it. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney followed up on his promise to restrict social gatherings if COVID-19 numbers didn’t go down by mid-December in the province — which is overwhelmed right now — Albertans will only be able to celebrate with the people they live with. Quebec officials, meanwhile, are walking back their plan to allow people to attend two holiday events if they quarantine, reports the CBC. Quebec Premier François Legault said get togethers in red zones will be prohibited.
The TL;DR answer to this long explanation: “The best idea for people at high-risk, or living in high-risk regions, is to plan virtual gatherings instead,” says Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a family physician based in Burlington, ON.

OK, OK. But how dangerous is *one* family meal?

While enjoying a take-away Swiss Chalet festive special with your grandma may seem harmless, being indoors with people outside your household is a no-no. Mohan explains that the combination of poor ventilation indoors — especially when we have our heaters on — close proximity to other people, and taking off a mask to eat, is the coronavirus’ Christmas dream. You also never know who is a superspreader, i.e. someone who infects multiple people, which we’ve seen play out in indoor spaces. “The risk of acquiring the virus indoors is quite high; it's why we closed restaurant and indoor dining first,” Mohan says. “If you're creating that same environment at home with family members, and you're hoping for a different result, it's likely not going to happen.”

Try telling my mom that.

We get it, breaking the news to your fam that you won’t be seeing them will be tough. But Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, says it’s a good idea to frame the conversation in a positive way using statements that don’t place blame on others. “Make it clear... 'What we decided this year was best for us, but we really look forward to being with you next year,'’’ she explains. “Keep it centered on the future, and being together in the future.”

What if I get tested or isolate before the holidays?

There are things you can do to reduce risk of getting COVID, Kwan says, but simply getting tested three days before hopping on a crowded train to ma’s house is not a foolproof plan.
Not only can you be exposed to the virus after testing, you could also get a false negative. Let us explain. The incubation period for COVID-19 is up to 14 days, which means, depending on when you get tested, you could get a negative result, but actually be positive. This is because when you first contract the coronavirus, it takes a few days for it to become detectable and for you to develop symptoms. What’s more, tests aren’t 100% accurate.
Isolating, which means staying in your home and not seeing others for at least 14 days, is another tactic, but there’s potential for failure in that strategy, too. “Even if people are ‘isolating’ before the holidays, some people will still go out to work, or for necessities, and maybe stop by the pharmacy, post office, gym, etc., which ends up not being actual isolation,” Kwan says. “When you have a gathering of multiple people or households, all that exposure risk adds up.”

What about if I live alone?

While Ontario residents who live alone can join one other household for the holidays per provincial guidelines, Kwan says people in other parts of the country should check their regional rules on bubbling before RSVPing to turkey dinner. Atlantic Canada has fewer COVID-19 cases than Alberta, for example, so what may fly in P.E.I. may not in Edmonton.
Even if you’re planning to ring in the New Year with your bestie who also lives solo, you need to be cautious of how you are both feeling and who you’ve been in contact with in recent weeks. “If you are showing any symptoms, or you have reason to believe that you had recent [exposure], it's not recommended to see others,” Mohan says.

If I can’t celebrate with my extended fam, how can I celebrate?

Keeping holiday vibes alive is important to many of us, and 2020 has made it clear that social connections help us thrive. We’ve had nearly a year to get creative with staying in touch with loved ones virtually, so the holidays are the time to put those skills to use.
You can use FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, whatever, to video call with your loved ones during holiday meals or special occasions, like opening presents, Ford says. Ideas like a virtual holiday movie night allows you to partake in your annual family tradition of watching Love Actually. Or, organize a family online game night (does Quiz Up ever get old?!) on Zoom. In lieu of your friend group’s yearly ugly sweater bash, mix things up and all chip in for a private cocktail class online.  
This year is also a prime opportunity to send holiday cards that seem to get put off each year. If you live close enough to loved ones, drop off baked goods or a homemade gift that shows them how much you care. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way — especially in 2020.
Lastly, make your own space festive. Just because you aren’t flying to your dad’s house like you normally would, you can create your own holiday. Decorate your home, hang lights, put up a tree and binge corny rom-coms. Anything to lift your spirits. “We do have hope in the future that a vaccine is coming out and that it will be effective,” Mohan says, “so if it's a matter of one [holiday] where we all sit at home and virtually chat with family to keep each other safe, I would implore folks to do that.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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