Ontario releases COVID-19 guidance for holiday gatherings

With the arrival of the holiday season, the Ontario government has released its COVID-19 guidance for those planning to gather and celebrate this year.

At his weekly news conference Thursday, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, urged residents to keep practicing public health measures like wearing masks and keeping distance during the holiday season.

He warned that the province will continue to see new infections rise in the upcoming weeks.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases continues to climb and now stands at 692, up from 597 one week ago.

"Wherever you are planning on spending the holiday period and the new year please do so safely. We are seeing the expected increase in cases, and we do anticipate that they will continue to rise over the holiday period," Moore said.

Last year, Ontarians were only allowed to celebrate with members of their own household due to the second wave of the pandemic. But with most of the population now vaccinated, people are being advised to celebrate together cautiously.

"This pandemic is certainly not over," Moore said. "But by getting the first, second or third doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and by consistently following those public health measures that we know work, we can reduce the risk of transmission and have a happy and healthy festive season."

Moore said Ontario is still in the fourth wave of the pandemic, and people must remain vigilant, especially in the next four months.

“It really does appear to be a continuance of that fourth wave that we experienced in September. That case counts really never got back to a low level. And it was anticipated that it would continue as we go indoors into crowded spaces, closed spaces and closed ventilation systems. So, we absolutely knew that the risk would continue,” Moore said.

“So, we never declared the fourth wave over this is simply a continuance. And sadly, all modelling would predict this would slowly steadily rise and increase over the coming months, including January and February.”

For those planning to travel this holiday season, Moore is strongly recommending that they be fully vaccinated. People experiencing symptoms, even if they are mild, should stay at home, he said.

"If you are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, you should avoid non-essential travel to all destinations. Regardless of vaccination status, if you choose to travel, please practice personal public health measures -- the very basic common measures of masking, distancing, hand hygiene while away and upon your return," Moore said.

"Travellers should stay informed about the COVID 19 situation at their destination and follow all local COVID-19 restrictions. If any traveller is symptomatic upon return even with mild symptoms, please get tested and stay home until you have your results."

Moore added that those travelling abroad must follow all the procedures laid out by the federal government.

For those planning to host or attend a holiday party, the doctor is advising that it be held outdoors if possible and should be limited to 100 people.

"If it is too cold, ensure that the indoor setting is well ventilated," he said, adding that indoor parties should not exceed 25 people.

Hosts should also ensure there are hand sanitizers and soaps available and a list of guests attending for possible contact tracing.

Attendees who are not fully vaccinated or whose status is unknown should wear a face covering and maintain physical distancing.

People attending indoor gatherings at a business or workplace should follow restrictions and rules for that setting and adhere to the guidelines outlined by the hosts.

"Always wear your mask when required," Moore said. "Even if it isn't required, you should wear one in private, indoor spaces if those around you are from multiple households who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or their vaccination status is unknown."

Here are the other tips from the province on how to celebrate safely during the holidays:

Visiting with Santa and Mrs. Claus

The province is advising children that it is safer to meet Santa outdoors than indoors. Parents should also consider a virtual visit.

  • stay home if you are feeling ill, even if you have mild symptoms
  • wear a face covering indoors, including when a photo is being taken. Santa's face covering should fit well over his beard
  • line up two metres apart from members of other households if waiting
  • If you plan on organizing an in-person event to meet with Santa, Mrs. Claus or the elves, you must comply with all organized public event gathering limits, public health measures, and all other provincial and local restrictions.

Exchanging gifts

  • Maintain a physical distance of two metres and wear a face covering when exchanging gifts with individuals from multiple households who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or status unknown.
  • Wash your hands after handling or opening gifts.

If you stay at another home overnight or host overnight guests

  • practice hand hygiene frequently
  • individuals from multiple households who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or status is unknown should practice physical distancing (two metres at all times) and wear face coverings
  • hosts and guests from multiple households who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or status is unknown should not sleep in the same bedroom and should use separate washrooms, if possible
  • spend time together outdoors
  • have a plan for what to do if someone becomes ill, even with mild symptoms