On Jan. 5, after spending 19 days at her home in Stephenville, Shelley Hynes said good-bye to her husband and son, not knowing when she would see them again.
Two days later, she was back at work as a heavy equipment operator in Fort McMurray, Alta., and back to living under tight restrictions with the virus raging all around her.
Hynes obtained a travel exemption to come home for the holidays, and got a small taste of the comparative freedom that people in Newfoundland and Labrador enjoy while COVID-19 caseloads remain low.
"It's like a different world altogether," said Hynes. "I just didn't want to leave. I don't know when I'll be able to come back again."
In Alberta, Hynes lives alone. That means she can have contact with just one other single-person household. A few days after arriving, she already missed the feeling of being surrounded by loved ones.
"It's back to reality, like a slap across the face again," she said. "I have one other person I'm allowed to communicate with, [that] I can go shake a hand or get a hug from. But down there I had many, I had family, I had friends over. Just the love ... is absolutely amazing."
Hynes' experience was shared by a few hundred families this holiday season. Newfoundland and Labrador has some of the strictest travel restrictions in the country, leaving many people who live and work in other provinces isolated from family, and navigating a far more severe version of the pandemic.
The chance to come home for a few weeks or months offered a break from both.
According to the Department of Health, the province received 392 requests for travel exemptions during the period between December 1st and January 3rd. It granted 341 of those requests.
CBC spoke with three such people about their recent visits to this province. All told us they abided by the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, and all other restrictions during their visits.
'They have no idea how alone you can be'
On Jan. 7, Tom Kennedy said a similar goodbye to his own family in St. John's.
Like Hynes, he had no idea when he would see them again. A few hours later, he checked into a hotel in Ottawa that has been transformed into a quarantine facility, with on-site nurses, mental health professionals, and security guards. In his small room, he will spend the next 14 days alone.
But Kennedy is already used to that.
"I hadn't seen my family for almost 11 months," said Kennedy. "When I moved to Iqaluit to work, I certainly didn't think I was going to be stuck in Iqaluit for a full 11 months because of COVID. I actually went to Iqaluit probably about three weeks before the pandemic shut everything down in the country."
Kennedy works as a retail store manager, and was travelling through Ottawa on his way back to Iqaluit. He applied for a travel exemption in November, and was thrilled when it was granted.
"It was amazing," he said. "I've seen a lot of negative connotations on Twitter and Facebook about people coming home, but they have no idea how alone you can be, not seeing your family for 11 months, only by video phone. So it was amazing. It was surreal."
But his trip to St. John's came with a price — spending the first 14 days in isolation.
"The first couple days I was there, I actually felt like a guest in my own house, if that makes any sense, because I was self-isolating downstairs. And it wasn't until two weeks that I got to interact with everybody."
When he finally emerged from the basement, Kennedy knew he was enjoying a privilege that many of his colleagues in Iqaluit, and many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians across the country, wouldn't be getting this holiday season.
"I have a lot of friends in Iqaluit, really close friends. I almost call them family because we've been basically in each other's zone for the last 11 months. And a lot of provinces didn't allow people to come back for Christmas. I was extremely lucky, very fortunate. I almost felt guilty. When I left Iqaluit on Dec. 4, a lot of my friends were like, you don't realize how lucky you are."
'There's a bit of guilt'
Darryl Dinn wound up spending Christmas at home in Labrador West for a different reason. He and his brother were granted travel exemptions because of a medical issue with a family member. But Dinn says the timing was a blessing.
"I've never missed a Christmas home," said Dinn, from his parents' house in Labrador City. "Very happy to be here but it's still a bit odd."
Dinn works as an actor in Toronto, one of the hardest-hit cities in the country. Now that he's in Labrador, he's getting a break from urban life by hiking the wide open trails, breathing a little easier without the virus stalking his every step.
"There's a worry of coming back here because, God forbid, you don't want to get anyone in your family sick," said Dinn. "There was that stress coming, but once I got here, there was a release of knowing that you're a bit more safe. It's a nice feeling."
Dinn has decided to delay his return to Toronto until February. He's happy to be around to help at a time when his family needs it, but with Ontario in full lockdown, he admits he's in no hurry to go back. Just like Tom Kennedy, he's been thinking a lot about his friends there who aren't able to leave.
"There's a bit of guilt, I've got to admit," he said. "I feel for friends, because there are some friends who haven't been fortunate like me to be able to go spend time with their family and get out of the city. They are, for want of a better word, trapped in the city and have a very small circle."
'Don't take it for granted'
The guilt of experiencing that freedom was coupled with the excitement of it. After Shelley Hynes completed her 14-day isolation, she took advantage of the chance to enjoy everyday life in a way she hasn't been able to in Alberta for months.
"I mean, I even went and got my hair done, because I can't get my hair done up here in Fort McMurray. Everything is shut down flat here. I got as much done as I could get done in Newfoundland as I could possibly do. I went shopping ... we went out to go eat. We did as much as we possibly could do, just because I have the freedom to do it."
Now, with Christmas come and gone, Hynes is facing a long winter of isolation and uncertainty. She says that even if she could obtain another travel exemption, another trip home wouldn't be feasible.
"I used to travel home to my son and my husband once a month," she said. "But because I have to quarantine for two weeks, I can only get home twice a year because I have to take so much time off of work. I just can't do that."
That separation has been hard on the whole family, particularly on the day Hynes spoke to CBC.
"My son is only 10 years old. It's really hard on him as well as myself with mommy not being around. Today is actually his birthday, [and] normally I would be there on his birthday, and I just can't be there. It's tough. Very, very tough."
Hynes, Kennedy and Dinn all had different experiences of coming home for the holidays. But they all came away with the same feeling, a hope that people here appreciate the relative comfort, safety and freedom that other parts of the country are living without.
"Don't take it for granted," Hynes said. "Enjoy every minute you have down there, spend as much time as you can with your loved ones. Don't take a minute for granted. It's very, very difficult for us up here."