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Spending the Holidays Safely in the Time of COVID-19
Dated: December 8 2020
The winter holiday season is now upon us. While this would normally be a time to look forward to gatherings with friends and family, the rising COVID case counts have caused many to wonder how they can safely celebrate this year.
While it may seem less risky to spend time with people you know, there have been several instances of family gatherings that have turned into super-spreader events. Dr. Jeff Kwong, Professor of family medicine and public health and the University of Toronto emphasizes the idea of “onward transmission” when reminding people to be cautious. "Ten people gathering, say four or five get infected, then they go on to their social circles and infect another five or 10, and so on."
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, supports this message, even though she admits it’s tough. “It's hard to do things differently and can be complicated to figure out how. But this year, following tradition is not the best thing to do." Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease physician at the University of Chicago Medicine, suggests that “For many people that may mean creating new, smaller (and safer) traditions.”
Infectious disease epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says it’s far more helpful to offer concrete examples of what people should do than admonish them for what they should not do. After all, people need something to look forward to. "The reality is we know that people are going to bend the rules a little bit,” she says. “First of all, give people creative ideas of how they might celebrate the holidays."
This year’s Diwali and Bandi Chhor Divas holidays posed a challenge for those in the Hindu and Sikh communities looking for ways to celebrate safely and still feel a sense of togetherness. Since both holidays are usually marked by large social gatherings, Brampton City Councillor Harkirat Singh remarked that “This year, more than ever, we have to get a little creative with how we can celebrate and connect with each other.” Deepak Sondhi, Editor-in-Chief of Times of Asia Punjabi Newspaper, requested that people support local businesses. “I know we will not be having a party at this time, but you can celebrate your Diwali, and Bandi Chhor Divas by buying sweets, gifts, and spending time with your loved ones,” he offered.
Technology can also provide alternative ways of celebrating. Jewish High Holy Days like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, both of which took place in September, are often marked by hours spent inside of a synagogue. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish group in North America, has seen the Jewish community reconfigure. “People can really take the resources and shape something that feels personally meaningful.” He noted that since many synagogues were offering streaming services, people were able to tune into Shabbat services in Israel or a temple in a different time zone that better fit the time of day they wanted to pray.
While Santa Claus parades have been cancelled across Canada, some have come up with COVID-19-safe alternatives. For example, London, Maple Ridge, B.C., and Yorkton, Sask. have planned a “reverse” parade. The floats stay parked while spectators drive by and enjoy the sights from the safety of their cars. The City of Toronto will continue its Santa Claus parade this year, but the new route is closed to the public. Instead, people will be able to view the parade on TV.
For those looking for more specific guidance on how to safely celebrate, there is a risk assessment tool on the Canada.ca site. Questions to ask before planning a gathering include “Will attendees interact within 2 metres with one another?” and “Will attendees have prolonged close interactions with one another?” Dr. Emily Landon says, “If spending time with your family is important, decide what level of risk you’re willing to take and talk honestly about it with everyone.”
Some municipalities have suggested several ideas for safe ways to celebrate, such as holding a “virtual celebration” where people sing songs, play games, have a gingerbread house decorating contest, open presents, or watch a movie online. Instead of a large family dinner, people might enjoy an outdoor hike, walk, skate, or snowshoe with their loved ones.
Although it seems daunting, it’s crucial to remember that things will not always be like this. Families will be able to gather again safely. Toronto resident Rashida Malcolm told CBC News that while she’s disappointed her family will not be gathering for their annual Christmas party, “It’s still a great time to be thankful. Lucky for us, our household is healthy and I keep reminding myself that when things seem a little bleak."