No place but home for the holidays? Canadians torn over Christmas travel with no bending of curve in sight

They say there’s no place like home for the holidays.

But in the year of COVID-19, even that lyric can raise anxiety-inducing questions — whose home? Would a gathering at your home be limited to your household members? If you live a few provinces over from your parents, is their home still safe for you to travel to?

That’s a question being mulled over by Greg Kelly, 27, who lives in Squamish, B.C., and is looking for clear government guidance on whether he and his partner can travel back to Burlington, Ont., to visit their families. He has a ticket he booked during a more hopeful time in the pandemic but is ready to cancel at a moment’s notice.

“It’s almost better if the government tells me I can’t go somewhere versus me deciding not to and breaking my mother’s heart,” he said.

Canadians currently face a patchwork of COVID-19 restrictions as cases surge in almost every province.

The conflicting guidelines between provinces have some Canadians feeling confused about whether to book or cancel that ticket home, especially when the holiday season can heighten feelings of loneliness, and conversations with family members who interpret COVID-19 guidelines differently can be tense and awkward.

B.C.’s current restrictions advise against non-essential travel within the province, but are set to expire on Dec. 7.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said this week that people should only celebrate the holiday season with people inside their own household. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said that if case numbers don’t come down by mid-December, people won’t be allowed to visit with people outside their immediate households during the holiday season.

Meanwhile, Quebec has proposed a complicated “moral contract” that would allow restrictions on gatherings to be relaxed for four days over the holidays, provided that people quarantine for a week before and after that time period.

‘It’s almost better if the government tells me I can’t go somewhere versus me deciding not to and breaking that news to my mother,’ said Greg Kelly, who is mulling whether he can travel home to Ontario for the holidays. (Submitted by Greg Kelly)

Kelly said with case counts rising, it seems “unrealistic” that restrictions could be loosened by Christmas — and he wishes public health officials would let people know what to expect so they can prepare.

“What’s creating the most tension for us right now is the directions that we’re being given are vague and I think they allow people to play in the grey area too much with the level of travel planning and life planning that happens around heading home,” said Kelly.

“[And what if] our families have different levels of COVID concern about what you can and cannot do? That’s a weird conversation to have.”

Governments hesitant to enforce strict rules

Those uncomfortable discussions and debates that are happening between spouses, siblings, parents and friends are — on some level — happening at the federal level as well.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said last week he is calling on the federal government to restrict non-essential travel between provinces, but said the province would not be implementing its own restrictions.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that the prospect of a normal Christmas this year is “right out of the question,” but that he did not want to bring “the federal hammer” down on provinces.

WATCH | Dr. Tam on having ‘the talk’ with relatives as holidays approach: 

Canada’s chief public health officer spoke with reporters during the pandemic briefing on Friday 2:13

Catherine Holmen, a Vancouver physics teacher, is warily watching case numbers rise in B.C. and Manitoba as she debates whether she can fly to Winnipeg to visit her 66-year-old mother, who lives alone.

Current restrictions on social gatherings in Manitoba mean her mother is in self-isolation — a difficult prospect for many people over the holidays.

“She’d be completely cut off. I can’t imagine her being completely alone on Christmas Day,” said Holmen, who said she’s trying to balance concerns around loneliness with two different sets of provincial health guidelines.

“I’m waiting to see what happens with case numbers. If these new restrictions don’t work and become more stringent, I would never be the type to disobey a restriction — so if someone were to say we’re going further along the pathway to a lockdown, I think that would have a larger role in what my decision would be.”

Holmen and Kelly both said that if they do travel, they’d only spend time with their family members and would make every effort to ensure they were being as cautious as possible — a minor trade-off in a year when so many opportunities for gathering have been off the table entirely.

“It’s not parties and gatherings and turkey dinner with 15 people. Airline travel is the only part where I’m out of my circle,” said Holmen.

“And that’s fine. The point is to be together with family.”

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