The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada celebrates Thanksgiving amid coronavirus second wave, mixed messages

Demonstrators protest mandatory masks in Montreal last month. (Graham Hughes/AP)

TORONTO — As cases of the coronavirus rose this spring, Carole Robert's "close-knit" family scrapped Easter. A family reunion planned for the summer was also a washout.

So when Robert got on the phone with a sister recently to talk Thanksgiving — a holiday she typically celebrates with some 35 family members — she knew what was coming.

“It’s completely canceled,” said Robert, who lives in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, roughly 60 miles from Ottawa. “There’s always next year.”

Canadian Thanksgiving comes earlier than the American version — families will gather to eat turkey and avoid discussing politics on Monday. But in this pandemic year, the timing is unfortunate.

As a second wave of the coronavirus prompts new restrictions in several provinces, authorities across the country are urging Canadians to curtail their holiday plans. Some suggest celebrating only with others who are already living under the same roof. Others advise moving the party outdoors or online.

In a rare nationally televised address last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it might be necessary to cancel Thanksgiving to “have a shot at Christmas.”

Whether Canadians obey those pleas remains to be seen. Forty percent of Canadians surveyed by the Montreal polling firm Leger this month said they haven’t or won’t change their Thanksgiving plans because of the pandemic.

Canada’s experience Monday might offer a preview of what Americans can expect next month — and a warning about what to avoid.

Canada’s coronavirus performance hasn’t been perfect. But it’s done far better than the U.S.

The United States has recorded nearly five times as many cases of coronavirus per capita than Canada and more than twice as many deaths. But Canada’s numbers are moving in the wrong direction, reversing gains made in the late spring and early summer. Officials worry the worst is yet to come as winter approaches, bringing with it flu season and temperatures that force more people indoors.

The country reported an average of 2,052 new daily cases over the previous seven days on Thursday, up 30 percent from the week before, according to Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. Daily case counts in some provinces have eclipsed the records set in the spring, when tougher restrictions were in place. Hospitalizations are up.

Infectious-diseases specialists see several reasons for the surge: Large social gatherings; the reopening of bars and restaurants; the failure of officials to take advantage of a summer of comparatively few cases to prepare for a fall wave; and pandemic fatigue.

“My fear here is that we’re going to have a really dark fall and winter if we don’t act,” said University of Toronto professor Andrew Morris, an infectious-diseases specialist at the Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network.

Covid-free communities on the U.S.-Canada border want travel restrictions eased

As in Europe, provinces are shying away from reimposing the broad business closures and stay-at-home orders of the spring, opting instead for targeted local measures that officials hope will inflict less damage on their economies.

Quebec has gone the furthest. Its three hardest-hit areas — Montreal, Quebec City and parts of the southeastern Chaudière-Appalaches region — entered a 28-day partial lockdown on Oct. 1. More regions followed. Bars, theaters, casinos and museums are closed. Restaurants are limited to takeout. Private gatherings among people from different households are mostly prohibited.

Christian Dubé, the provincial health minister, said there’s more community transmission in more parts of the province than there was in the spring, when many outbreaks occurred in long-term care homes and cases were largely concentrated in Montreal.

“Don’t take the risk,” he said. “Don’t test the system. . . . Stay home.”

In Ontario, testing centers are so overwhelmed that officials have tightened the criteria for who can get a test. A backlog of tens of thousands of samples has left officials flying blind on the source of infections and the scope of the problem. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has scaled back contact tracing.

Quebec requires students to return to class, and the number of families home-schooling jumps

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, of the Progressive Conservative party, has responded with harsh words for rule breakers. The organizers of large social gatherings, he said, are “a few fries short of a Happy Meal.” The hundreds who attended a car rally in a parking lot in Hamilton last month should get their brains scanned, he said.

He had for several weeks resisted calls, including from Toronto’s top doctor, to do more. He said early last week that he needed to see more evidence before taking “someone’s livelihood away” and that the province was “flattening the curve.”

But on Friday, Ford’s tone changed, and he warned that Ontario was at risk of the “worst-case scenarios” seen in northern Italy. He announced restrictions in hard-hit areas, including a ban on indoor dining at bars and restaurants, and the closing of indoor gyms, theaters and casinos for at least 28 days.

Infectious-diseases specialists say the response has been hampered by muddled messaging. Dubé has admitted that communication in Quebec could have been better. Different officials in Ontario have offered varying definitions of “household” and contradictory advice on how or whether to gather for Thanksgiving — even within the same news conference.

Ford described his own holiday plans, then appeared to change them after it was pointed out that they contradicted his own government’s advice to celebrate only with those in one’s immediate household.

Morris, the University of Toronto professor, said the messaging mishaps risk damaging public trust in officials when it’s most needed.

“There’s been a failure to recognize the inconsistent messaging . . . and an almost delusion that if you implore people to behave differently, then they will behave differently,” he said. “In almost every jurisdiction that hasn’t occurred, and we’ve failed to learn from other jurisdictions.”

Migrant farmworkers die in Canada, and Mexico wants answers

Canadians observe Thanksgiving each year on the second Monday of October. As in the United States, many celebrate with turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. College students return home. The Canadian Football League typically plays a game or two — the Thanksgiving Day Classic — but the league canceled the season this year after failing to secure financial aid from the federal government.

Thanksgiving accounts for 39 percent of annual whole turkey sales, according to the Turkey Farmers of Canada. The national supermarket group Loblaw says it’s emphasizing smaller birds this year, in the expectation that they’ll be more popular for smaller gatherings. But it will still have large turkeys, “because, really, who doesn’t love leftovers?”

Robert is skipping the turkey this year. She said it’s been “extremely hard” not to see her family, but she has two brothers with cancer, and everyone has agreed that gathering isn’t worth the risk.

She’s keeping her fingers crossed for a more normal Christmas, but she’s not optimistic.

“When you look at the numbers,” she said, “I doubt that we’re all going to see each other.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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