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With COVID-19 Tamped Down, Christmas Looks Up in Atlantic Canada

Customers line up in front of Halifax cafe Coburg Social, which has maintained a take-out window throughout the pandemic. (Jay Heisler/VOA)

A brief surge of coronavirus infections in Atlantic Canada – one of the least-affected places on Earth – has been tamped down just in time for residents to enjoy something resembling a normal Christmas. But most say they will continue to observe the social distancing and other measures that have helped to keep the pandemic at bay.

“We are heading into the holiday season with very low active cases of COVID-19 in our province because Nova Scotians have worked hard to follow the protocols and slow the spread of the virus,” said Premier Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia, the most populous of the region’s four provinces with a little under 1 million residents.

“The people of our province will still be able to get together with family,” McNeil told VOA. “It will just have to be in a smaller group.”

American media took note earlier this fall of the “Atlantic Bubble,” a large region just a few hundred kilometers from New York City where cases of the world-spanning viral disease were so low that new cases could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Free movement was permitted within the region comprising Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, while outsiders – even from other parts of Canada – could not visit without submitting to a two-week quarantine.

Within weeks of that wave of publicity, the tranquility was shattered by an outbreak of new cases that, while still small by global standards, set off alarms. The free travel zone was temporarily disbanded, and Nova Scotia – with fewer than 200 total cases – declared a limited lockdown with an end to indoor dining and gyms.

The measures proved effective, and a week before Christmas, the total number of active cases in Nova Scotia is down to 50 with nobody hospitalized. The province reported just six new cases on Wednesday.

In response, gyms and religious services have been allowed to reopen at partial capacity, although indoor dining and live music are still prohibited. More important for families hoping to celebrate the year-end holidays together, a strict limit on gatherings in Halifax, the region’s biggest city, has been raised from five people to 10.

Even so, many residents say they will play it safe.

Nova Scotia-based epidemiologist Devbani Raha says she is closely following the case numbers as she makes her holiday plans and is encouraged to see that the tally is not going up. Even so, she is inviting only a single family friend for Christmas dinner.

Students go about their lives during the pandemic lockdown on the campus of the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Jay Heisler/VOA)
Students go about their lives during the pandemic lockdown on the campus of the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Jay Heisler/VOA)

“I know that my guest follows guidelines in terms of only being outside her home to shop for necessities, and we have done the same,” Raha said. “I plan on contacting my guest the day before our dinner plans to ensure that she hasn't been at other gatherings, and hasn't been feeling sick, especially fever, cough or loss of smell or taste, and I'll be monitoring my family's symptoms too.”

And if she notices a new spike in infections before Christmas, Raha said, “I would sadly cancel my plans, as I would not want to potentially add to the growing number of cases.”

It is just this kind of personal discipline that has helped keep Atlantic Canada relatively safe from the pandemic as COVID-19 cases and deaths surge in other parts of the country. And even the recent surge is largely blamed on visitors from outside the bubble.

In the province of New Brunswick – Nova Scotia’s western neighbor – a great deal of abuse has been heaped on a local entrepreneur named Cortland Cronk who appears to have become infected while traveling outside the bubble to what was deemed to be essential IT work.

Some Twitter users charge that Cronk failed to self-isolate while waiting for his test results after showing COVID-19 symptoms. Cronk has responded on Twitter to many of his critics individually and has announced plans to move across the country to the Pacific Coast province of British Columbia.

In Nova Scotia, the outbreak was largely blamed on young people mingling late into the evenings in bars, in defiance of pandemic regulations. For the most part, however, residents and businesses alike have followed the rules.

“It's been an interesting and challenging year for us,” said Krista Armstrong, owner of Halifax-based food market the Local Source. “We pivoted quickly in March, into an online platform, and it's worked well.

“During Nova Scotia's lockdown in March, I was home with a 7-month-old, which added a level of complication,” she said, adding that she is giving her staff an unprecedented four-day break at Christmas to give them “time to rest.”

“Personally, I'll be home with our now toddler,” she said.