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Tips to celebrate the holidays safely during COVID-19

Wondering how to navigate the holiday season? Hear how three Ryerson experts are connecting with loved ones this year - and what advice they have for you
By: Lindsey Craig
December 10, 2020
Two parents and their young daughters smile for a selfie with grandparents on another screen in front of them, also smiling

While they’re not all physically in the same place, a family takes a group photo by coming together virtually - on screens. (iStock)

It’s that time of year again, when the snow begins to fall, lights sparkle on the trees and holiday plans begin to fill the calendar.

But wait - what holiday plans? With the pandemic in full swing, many of us are wondering, can we celebrate safely this year? And if so … how?

With many traditions and celebrations cancelled or up in the air as families decide what to do, Ryerson experts say it’s not all doom and gloom.  

In fact - if you’re struggling with how to celebrate this holiday season, below, check out tips from our experts about what we can do to connect and celebrate this year.  

Focus on connection

Diana Brecher
Psychologist, Centre for Student Development and Counselling

After watching how Americans recently celebrated Thanksgiving this year, Ryerson psychologist Diana Brecher says many people have “lost sight of the plot”.  

“The intention of the holidays is connection. Yes, it’s about being with the people we care about - but what’s more important is the intention underneath,” she said.

“In a pandemic, we may not be able to connect the way we’re used to - but we can still do so safely,” she said.

The psychologist says being creative and using technology can help create a sense of togetherness with the people we care about.

“We need to come into this holiday season with different expectations - not necessarily lower ones, but new ones. For instance, you could cook a friend or loved one’s recipe - and then let them know how it tastes,” she said.

Another suggestion is a video call with multiple “breakout rooms”, so people can move back and forth, switching up social circles and conversations, similarly to how one might socialize at a cocktail party.

“It isn’t quite as satisfying as being in the same room, but it comes close,” said Brecher, who’s been connecting with friends throughout the pandemic by playing bridge virtually, through Trickster cards.

“Technology helps us do these things - but fundamentally, what helps is keeping the plot in mind: We’re in a pandemic, we have to keep an open mind and say, ‘It’s going to be different this time, I’m going to use my creativity to make this happen,’” she said.

For Christmas this year, Brecher is taking part in a virtual party. Each household has been assigned to either prepare a skit, song or trivia questions.

“It’s a way to make it fun even though we’re not all in the same place,” she said.

She also says those who will be missing religious services at places of worship can apply a similar mentality.

“The underlying intention is your connection to your spiritual self. And that you can do from anywhere,” she said. 

An older woman smiles and waves at a child on a computer screen, with festive decorations in the background

While many families won’t be able to see their loved ones in-person this year, with a little creativity, it’s possible to connect. For example, Prof. Tim Sly is planning a concert with his grandsons over Zoom. (iStock)

Changing the goal post

Dr. Samir Sinha
Director of Health Policy Research, National Institute on Ageing (NIA), Ted Rogers School of Management and Director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and University Health Network Hospitals

“If there was ever a holiday fraught with confusion, this is it,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of health policy research at TRSM’s National Institute on Ageing (NIA).

With parents in Winnipeg who are 70 and 80, and a brother in Baltimore, he says this will be a very different year for all of them.

Instead of coming to Toronto, his parents, retired physicians, will stay put in Manitoba.  

“It brings about a lot of tension, because we all really want to see each other. But we have to do what we can to keep everyone safe, and respect that different people have different levels of risk,” he said.

The family didn’t cancel their visit, however. Instead, they’re rethinking the possibilities.  

“Let’s change the goal post. Why not have Christmas in July?” Dr. Sinha said.

He says he and his family have simply decided to plan their annual get together when it’s safe to do so (July or later, depending), and notes that the most important thing is to follow local public health guidelines.  

“You can’t just pick and choose the rules that work well for you,” he said.

So, he’s looking forward to a quiet chance to relax this year with his partner, their cat, and favourite movies on Netflix.

“We often think of the holidays as a time of intergenerational solidarity, for grandparents to see their grandkids, and for us to socialize with one another. Why not just move that to a time when it’s safe to do so?”

Test to evaluate risk

For those who still intend to travel, Dr. Sinha urges those who live in a city with a high number of COVID-19 cases to quarantine for 7-14 days before visiting loved ones in another jurisdiction.

Otherwise, “That’s exactly how COVID starts to spread,” he said.

Dr. Sinha says anyone grappling with decisions about whether to see family or friends should consult the NIA’s new assessment tool, external link, designed to help people of different ages and states of health determine the risk of visiting others and make a well-informed choice.

“This is an emotional holiday season. We have to respect the fact that people are feeling isolated and lonely, people are desperate to be with people they love. We need to find other ways to connect and make the best of it,” he said.

Zoom concert with grandsons

Professor Emeritus Tim Sly
Epidemiologist, School of Occupational and Public Health, Faculty of Community Services

Professor emeritus and epidemiologist Tim Sly has a special holiday project on his plate this year.

He’s currently rehearsing to give a concert - on Zoom, with his grandsons.

“We’re practicing several tunes - so far it's Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, Scott Joplin's The Entertainer, an instrumental-only version of Despacito, and Taylor Davis' arrangement of ‘Let it go!’” he said.

The performance involves Sly on everything from the harmonica to the flute, and his grandsons, aged 10 and 13 on guitar and violin.

At Christmas, they’ll perform for Sly’s son and his wife.

“As we get closer to the season, I'll also be changing the green-screen to a snow-scene and digging out my Santa hat,” Sly said.

As for actually seeing his grandsons in-person, Sly picks them up from school once a week for a five-minute car ride to their home. They wear masks and keep the windows down slightly, and Sly doesn’t go into their home.  

“There’s an increased risk indoors because of two factors: one is the temperature, since even the indoor temperature is going down, and viruses like cooler temperatures. They also like dry air, and both of those factors are very much with us as we get into the cold and the furnaces come on,” he said.

All about the ‘7 Cs’

Whether a social activity is indoors or outdoors is just one of seven factors he says we must consider when making decisions about holiday plans.

In fact, he says it’s all about the “7 Cs of Covid”:

  • Closed spaces (indoors vs outdoors)
  • Contact (directly by hand and surfaces)
  • Close proximity (less than 2M between people)
  • Crowds (the more people the higher the risk)
  • Continued exposure (more than 15 minutes; more hours, more risk)
  • Covering/masking (or lack of)
  • Coughing, shouting, singing, talking  (in that order)

“Whenever there are multiple Cs, this is when we see transmission to others take place,” he said, pointing to super-spreader events, such as a choir practice in Skagit County, Washington in March.

“About 60 people went to practice for two and a half hours. One person was in the early stages of the illness - and they managed to give it to 53 other people, two of whom died,” Sly said, noting that singing and speaking loudly presents even greater risk, since the virus spreads more effectively if the vocal cords close.

Evaluating the risk

So, if you’re wondering whether to go to your neighbour’s for some eggnog, ask yourself: Will you be with people from outside of your household? Is it for a prolonged period of time? Is it indoors? Will everyone be wearing masks? Will you all be at a minimum six feet apart at all times?

The more Cs you check off the list, the greater the risk for transmission, Sly said.

“Is it for 15 minutes? Is it more than 30? Maybe you’re masked, but then what happens every time you take a drink of eggnog or eat a sandwich? That’s an increased factor. And there’s usually a lot of enthusiasm, so lots of talking, which is further risk,” he said.

Opportunities to make a difference

Sly says people should embrace the cold - since outdoor winter activities, such as tobogganing and skating, present much lower risk.

He also says those who are healthy should feel fortunate.  

“It will be an unusual Christmas, but we have technology in place to bring us together. Think about what it was like in 1918, you know, when the first influenza hit. We didn’t have the means to see people - and most didn’t even have telephones. We’re pretty lucky.”

On that note, he says to be mindful of those who don’t have technological means to connect.

“Search for opportunities to make a meaningful and personal difference, to bring a sincere greeting to someone who would welcome a call or a simple chat,” he said.

“Or maybe, a little surprise delivered at the door with a card, perhaps with an idea or two about planning for brighter days next year.”

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