Doug Ford at a press conference about the Omicron video. Credit: Doug Ford (video still) / Twitter

I have news for the many people in Ontario who are planning holiday social gatherings of more than ten people: if you go ahead with your plans, you will be breaking the law.

On Friday December 17 the Ontario government announced new restrictions in response to the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases.

The measures target businesses such as restaurants, retail stores, bars and gyms – and, by and large, those businesses will respect them.

But the new restrictions also include individual households. The province has deemed indoor social gatherings must not exceed 10 people. Outdoor gatherings can go as high as 25. (Christmas dinners and New Year’s Eve parties count as indoor gatherings.)

Based on the holiday plans of those in my own social circles, many are not fully aware of the new 10-person-per-indoor-gathering rule. And yet, it is the single new restriction which could have the greatest impact on us all.

This new rule, which came into effect at 12:01AM on Monday December 20, is not, as many Ontarians seem to believe, merely a friendly suggestion from Premier Doug Ford and company.

The 10-person rule is, in effect, the law.

Now, you can hardly blame the people of Ontario for being unaware of this new legal limit on social gatherings. The provincial and municipal governments have done next to nothing to make sure the general population fully comprehends the new rules.

Have a look at the Ontario government website. If you hunt around you will find, buried amidst all the other new COVID regulations, this statement: “… to mitigate COVID-19 transmission that can occur at informal social gatherings, the province is also reducing social gathering limits to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.”

The city of Toronto puts the same message more affirmatively: “Indoor social gatherings of up to 10 people from different households are permitted.”

The city of Ottawa’s site has two different messages.

Ottawa Public Health says: “Keep indoor gatherings in private settings as small as possible,” adding that you should “limit the total number of people you come in close contact with this holiday season.”

Elsewhere on that same site you will find this rather more assertive message: “Indoor social gatherings are limited to 10 people. Outdoor gatherings are restricted to 25 people. People must maintain two metres from others and wear a mask when physical distancing becomes difficult.”

So, the city of Ottawa is either urging you to, voluntarily, use good judgement and keep gatherings small, without defining what small means, or it is telling you there is a hard limit of ten on all indoor gatherings.

If you were to call Ottawa’s 311 line, the city employee on the other end would tell you the latter is the case. There is, in fact, a definite and legal limit of 10 for Christmas parties and other social events.

The 311 official would add that if you were to hold an event that exceeded the 10-person limit, city bylaw officers could come to your home and ask your guests to leave. They could also give you a fine (or, more likely, a warning).  

Weak messaging will mean a big COVID surge after party season ends

These new rules are not the product of new legislation. The Ontario government promulgated them via its existing powers to enact regulations in response to health emergencies. The new restrictions have a similar legal status to government-issued quarantine orders.

There is very little ordinary citizens can do, in their own daily lives, to combat the newest onslaught of COVID-19.

One choice citizens can take is to get themselves vaccinated (and boosted it they have had the two shots).

Tragically, that is not easy in Ontario right now. When it comes to the current vaccine roll-out the Doug Ford government has over-promised and quite massively under-delivered, a cardinal error in public administration.

The other anti-COVID choice everyday citizens can make is to limit the spread of the virus in their own homes and social circles. That choice is much easier to achieve than winning the Hunger Games competition for a booster vaccine.

It is within our power, all of us, to limit the number of people we entertain, indoors, in our own homes.

In Ontario (and in a number of other provinces) the government would like us to make that choice. In fact, the Ontario government and many municipal governments are telling us we are legally required to limit the number of people at our Christmas table or New Year’s Eve party to ten.

But unfortunately, the same governments are not always clear and forthright about that message. In fact, some governments, such as that of the city of Ottawa, have put out contradictory messages.

Few governments anywhere in Canada – be they of cities, towns, counties or provinces – are making any serious effort to ensure all citizens are fully cognizant of the new rules limiting indoor social gatherings. (Belatedly, the Quebec government might be the exception.)

What will almost certainly happen over the next few weeks, in Ontario and likely throughout Canada, is that millions will attend too-crowded indoor festivities in private homes, with sad and predictable results.

Over-crowded and poorly-ventilated dwellings are perfect environments for aerosols carrying the new, highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

Folks who pick up Omicron at holiday gatherings will then share their unwanted viral guests with shop-clerks, colleagues, neighbours and friends – who will, in turn, share them with thousands of others.

That’s how it works.

Unless governments make a far more serious effort to get convey a clear and unambiguous message about indoor gatherings to the population, we will almost certainly see a massive spike in COVID-19 cases over the next few weeks.

What will follow that upsurge, as day follows night, will be a dangerous spike in hospitalizations. Dr. Theresa Tam is already warning that unless Canadians reduce their social contacts, hospitals will once again become overwhelmed.

Those who will ultimately pay the highest and most unfair price will not be holiday party-goers.

They will be people such as Matthew Laferriere. He is the 33-year-old Manitoba man who had his kidney transplant surgery delayed for months by the pandemic. Now he is suffering heart failure. Surgeons will not be able to give him a new kidney until they find a new heart for him.

There are many more like Laferriere. They are dealing with heart disease, cancer, and many other non-COVID conditions.

They are the ones who will suffer most from all of the virus-spreading that takes place during the current festive season.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...