On Dec. 23, staff at the Ottawa-Carleton Lifeskills group home told resident David Neill-Alshami he wouldn't be going home with his family for Christmas.
Neill-Alshami, 37, has a developmental disability, and his cognitive function falls somewhere between the level of a four-year-old and a six-year-old.
He responded in his limited vocabulary.
"But, Christmas," he said.
His mother, Priscilla Neill, said Christmas is his favourite day of the year and he was devastated to learn he wouldn't be spending it with his family. Neill planned for them to spend the night watching a recording of her church's Christmas Eve service before opening presents the following morning.
The group home said due to rapidly increasing COVID-19 case counts, it would be banning residents from staying away overnight.
Neill said the decision came without warning after she spent weeks getting her son excited for his holiday visit.
"It's heartbreaking, and this is the second year in a row that he hasn't been home," she said. "This Christmas he could have come home ... there is no logical reason why this was done two days before Christmas."
'As safe as possible'
Jocelyn Paul, executive director of Ottawa-Carleton Lifeskills, said the home was waiting for the province to release its guidelines before she released her own.
The Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services published new guidance on Dec. 21, to come into effect Christmas Eve, that required rapid testing for visitors, staff and residents at group homes.
The provincial guidance did not restrict residents from leaving the home, but Paul said Lifeskills decided to go "above and beyond" provincial rules.
"We are really trying to manage case counts within the agency, and trying to keep everybody, both staff and residents, as safe as possible," she told CBC Ottawa.
More than 60 residents live in Ottawa-Carleton Lifeskills group homes. Paul said the organization did a study at the beginning of the pandemic that determined many of its residents are at high risk of severe complications from COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions.
So far, Paul said no residents have tested positive for COVID-19.
Neill said she has three doses of the vaccine and her university-aged daughter has two. With just the three family members in the house, she felt the risk would have been quite low.
"This was a last minute decision," she added. "It was very disappointing and very hard for the mental happiness of the residents — and our stability as well."