TORONTO — The dining room table in the Matheson house runs long – so long that Cheryl Kinney Matheson wondered if it provided the social distance needed for COVID-19 precautions.
If so, the 68-year-old reasoned she could host her extended relatives on Christmas Day as usual, imagining that guests would sit at one end of the table while her pandemic bubble remained at the other.
It didn’t take long for the Kenora, Ont., retiree to realize she was spiraling into “mental gymnastics” to justify pursuing her Christmas wish. She ultimately abandoned that plan.
“We were trying to make happen what we wanted to have happen from previous years," Matheson said earlier this month, the day her northern Ontario region was downgraded from a “green” to “yellow” COVID-19 zone. "At some point you just have to go: This is so unusual this year, just let it be."
Like many Canadians this year, members of the Matheson clan admit to spending weeks trying to hash out scenarios that could allow for some semblance of the typical festive cheer they enjoy each Christmas and New Year’s, even it if might bend the rules.
Until recently, Ontario guidelines permitted indoor gatherings of up to 10 people in some regions – as long as those outside the household were distanced and masked – but holiday-specific advice says people should stick to their household, regardless of the COVID-19 situation.
Still, it has not been uncommon to hear mention of a friend-of-a-friend who mused about pulling their child out of school for a pre-Christmas quarantine so they can see Grandma, or a colleague's planned clandestine meet-up with in-laws despite telling their own parents they've cancelled all get-togethers.
Earlier this week Toronto Mayor John Tory made a direct appeal to anyone plotting to skirt restrictions in his city, placed under the "grey" lockdown zone: "This Christmas, stay home as much as possible. If that means ... you have to change your plans, please change them."
Seemingly acknowledging that gatherings will happen regardless, Nova Scotia came up with a creative workaround that permits people to travel Dec. 21 to see relatives in another town, but there are caveats to limit the chance of COVID-19 spread: "When you get there, stay there," said Premier Stephen McNeil. "We're doing this because we know how important it is for families to be together at this time."
Matheson’s school-teacher son Reid Matheson, 33, says plans are still in flux but he expects to host his parents and sister – who last month returned to the family home when the pandemic threw her out of work in Toronto – at his house overnight Christmas Eve. He says the trio is part of his social bubble; his mom even babysits the kids once a week.
In addition to his wife, Shannon, his household includes their 18-month and three-year-old kids, and Shannon’s mother, who moved in with them from Whitney, Ont., in November.
Shannon Matheson, a nurse at a medical clinic who also runs a foot care business, says she’s tested for COVID-19 every two weeks, while her mom does the same in order to visit Shannon’s grandmother in a long-term care facility.
"The scary part – and it's just part of COVID – is that we do have plans but these plans could always change within a week based on how many cases that are in Kenora, or if we go into a different code," says Shannon Matheson, 31.
In the “grey” lockdown zone of Toronto, Will Moll expects to spend Christmas with his bubble: his live-in girlfriend, 65-year-old father, 62-year-old mother and 85-year-old grandmother — a plan that would merge three households.
The assistant location manager for film and television admits that would violate public health advice but says he and his father work on the same film production, where COVID-19 precautions are rigorous.
"They're so very precise. Members on our crew get tested three times a week. I get tested twice a week. My father also works for the production and he also gets tested twice a week,” says Moll.
The 34-year-old acknowledges the film and TV industry has suffered COVID-19 cases “but what we do have is an amazing system of identifying it, contact tracing, and prevention of it being spread.”
"We as a family all discussed how to stay safe through all of this,” Moll adds, noting he and his girlfriend – a kindergarten teacher – expect to stay in, order food and play video games for most of their winter break.
“My entire personal plan is to go to work and come home.”
If they go ahead with the plan, he expects their only outings would be to his mother’s house, where his grandmother lives, on Dec. 24. They’ll spend the night, have lunch there Christmas Day and leave.
From there, they hope to “pop in” at the house of his girlfriend’s family for a socially distanced greeting in their backyard and then head home.
The Matheson and Moll scenarios seem to hold little risk, agrees infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness, but he does not approve of any challenge to public health guidelines – particularly in Toronto where the health-care system is especially strained.
"That risk does not sound high, but cumulatively if everybody does this, then we're going to see a real proliferation of cases," warns Furness, an assistant professor specializing in health policy and information and knowledge management at the University of Toronto.
"The fact of the matter is, if our health system breaks and bodies pile up and there's refrigerator trucks, everyone's going to have to look in the mirror and ask themself: 'Did I contribute to this?'
"And I think most people would want to be able to say: ‘No, I didn't."
At this time of year, Cheryl Kinney Matheson says she’d normally attend seasonal concerts, go to church, visit relatives on their farm outside Winnipeg and host a Boxing Day potluck with friends.
She says all of that is off the table now, but she’s hopeful she can still see her son and his family safely.
"We're human beings, we're meant for relationships, and we care about our families and we care about our friends," says Matheson.
"And we love our traditions. And so it's sad when you can't do the traditions."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2020.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press