The holidays are fast approaching as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the country, leaving many Canadians wondering if they should travel to visit friends and family or stay home.
Manitoba announced a “Level Red” lockdown on Tuesday, Ontario broke a case-count record for the third day running with 1,575 new cases on Thursday, while Alberta is set to announce strict new measures, sources confirmed to Global News.
The high number of cases in Canada has already caused many holiday celebrations like Christmas markets, Santa Claus parades and holiday concerts to be cancelled this year.
So, should Christmas family gatherings be called off too?
“For some people it’s unavoidable … but do not gather or travel if you don’t have to,” Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said.
“Like Thanksgiving and Halloween, the message is still the same — but at a higher level — avoid unnecessary gathering and travel.
“People have to make sacrifices this holiday season.”
‘It makes me too nervous’
On Dec. 20, 2019, Canada’s busiest airport — Toronto Pearson Airport — saw 138,000 passengers pass through (the busiest day of the year), with many arriving for family visits, or leaving for special holiday vacations.
But airports like Toronto Pearson may see less traffic this year during the holidays as Canadians choose to stay home to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Sheri Haynes, a Canadian living in Minnesota, said she decided to stay in the U.S. for the holidays this year and not to visit her parents in Ontario. She said she is worried about the health risks, as her mother has a pre-existing condition.
“It makes me too nervous. Although I’m allowed to cross the border right now, there’s just too many cases here and in Canada right now. We’re going to do a virtual gathering instead.”
“Maybe 2021 will be better,” Haynes added.
Deonandan said a lot of people count on the holidays to help with their mental health, especially because of the isolating year it has been.
“Some people rely on the holidays for mental health reasons, so we should allow them to have it. (For example), there are some people who have lived alone all year and would like to see their grandkids, and I think that is important and still can be done in a safe way,” he said.
However, he said, for the most part, Canadians should try and avoid gatherings, especially if they are sick.
“If you are symptomatic and are showing signs of coronavirus, don’t even think about going,” he said.
Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist with Ryerson University’s school of public health, explained that because the coronavirus figures are so alarming, people should “stay back this year.”
“There’s only five weeks until Christmas, and the numbers are far worse than they were in April,” Sly said. “And to bring the numbers down before then, the country would have to have very strict lockdowns. People should stay back for the holidays, it’s going to be tough on everyone.”
What if you decide to travel for the holidays?
For Canadians who decide to travel and visit friends and family, Deonandan recommended they “quarantine” before they leave and when they arrive.
He said he’s spoken to some families who have decided to try this method out — they will quarantine in separate living spaces in a house, like a basement, and wear masks and stay six feet apart when in a common room, like a kitchen.
“It’s not ideal, but at least you can see your loved ones,” he said.
Sly said he believes this method may still be too risky, saying it’s “virtually impossible” unless you live in a separate space.
“Continued exposure is part of how coronavirus spreads,” he explained. “And living in the same house, where it’s impossible to separate and you don’t go outside as much because it’s winter, it could be dangerous. Coronavirus moves silently … and you may not know who has it.”
In addition to living in close proximity, Sly said the coronavirus can spread more easily in the colder months, as other respiratory viruses do.
He added that whether or not you should travel also depends on where you live in Canada.
For example, parts of the Maritimes have very low cases of coronavirus, so travelling to visit a friend or family during the holidays may be safe.
However, if you are travelling from a high-risk area like Toronto to a low-risk area (or vice versa) you should rethink your decision, he added.
What’s the safest way to travel?
If you are going to travel, try to drive, as your exposure to the virus diminishes in a self-contained environment, Deonandan said. Driving also means minimal interactions with people when you stop to get gas or get food, he said.
Although the risk of transmitting COVID-19 on a plane is believed to be low — because of the high level of air circulation and filtration on flights — Deonandan said it’s the cab ride to the airport, checking in, going through security and finding your luggage that puts you at risk.
However, he said that risk can be minimized by wearing a face mask throughout your trip and keeping a safe distance as much as possible.