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Is the workplace holiday party still too much of a risk with COVID-19?

TORONTO —
It’s 2021, the majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the winter holidays are approaching — leading to a question many employees and employers are currently juggling: Is the workplace holiday party going to make a comeback, and is that a good idea?

Last year, the holiday party was largely out of the question, with restaurants, bars and venues closed to guests and large groups. Now, with the proliferation of vaccines having aided in the reopening of some aspects of society, including indoor dining and large indoor events, some companies and employers are considering bringing back the traditional holiday party to allow coworkers to celebrate together.

But is it a good idea with COVID-19 still circulating?

For one health expert, the answer is clear: in-person holiday parties are a bad idea.

Colin Furness, a Toronto-based infection control epidemiologist, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that he believes in-person work parties are still a risk when cases are circulating in the community.

“You can maybe have an office party and maybe get away with it, but you really need to think about the bigger systemic things,” he said.

“The problem with office parties is, especially given how much isolation we’ve had in 20 months, is people are really, really hankering for social interaction, which means no mask, which means the alcohol flows, which means people get a little bit loud, a little bit messy, a little bit close. And so even the best of intentions can kind of fall by the wayside.”

Breakthrough cases of COVID-19 are possible, although relatively rare, and Furness pointed out that we have only just started vaccinating kids aged 5-11, meaning this group is still at risk of catching COVID-19 if a parent passes it on to them.

“The timing of the holiday season, with respect to our ability to vaccinate kids, really sucks,” he said.

While children are significantly less likely to suffer severe outcomes if they contract the virus, long COVID symptoms such as brain fog are a sign of brain damage, he said, and studies have shown that anywhere from one in seven to half of children who contract the virus experience symptoms weeks later.

“Primary schools are the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “That is the only biome that COVID has left. And so if you want to know the impact of your activities, that’s where you need to look.”

He added that he understands how much people miss that social interaction, but stated that in terms of priorities, a holiday party isn’t high up since it doesn’t drive the economy or help benefit vulnerable people.

“It makes me feel awful to say, ‘We need to hold off,’ but I do feel we need to hold off.”

As for whether holding a holiday party is a bad idea legally, employment lawyer Andrew Monkhouse told CTVNews.ca that it’s unlikely employers would be sued if an employee caught COVID-19 at such a gathering.

“In Canada, really there hasn’t been a lot of COVID liability cases,” he said. “Even if there was going to be, say, a lawsuit relating to COVID liabilities, someone gets COVID and they can specifically trace it back to a restaurant [where a work party was held], I assume they might potentially make the claim both against the restaurant and against their employer.

“That being said, employers would have very limited liability under Canadian law for an employee getting COVID. They’d have to be grossly negligent.”

He pointed out that a workplace holiday party should always be framed as an event where attendance is voluntary.

“That would probably significantly reduce any potential liability on the company or employer, because that way it’s been the employee’s choice, they don’t have to go,” Monkhouse said.

An employee would only really have a case for suing if they could prove their employer went above and beyond to put them in harm’s way at the party and make them catch the virus, such as “forcing staff to be in closer quarters, or they’re playing some pre-COVID game where obviously it wouldn’t be considered OK in the current circumstances.”

If a manager was putting pressure on an employee to attend an in-person holiday party that they weren’t comfortable with due to COVID-19 worries, Monkhouse said employees should know they can always turn down these types of events.

“Generally, if an employee feels like they’re being pushed, I think it’s best just to say they can’t make it, sorry, and they’re happy to get together soon,” he said. “At the end of the day, you know, no employee is required to go to a holiday party even in a before-COVID time.”

Some employees may be concerned about attending a work event if they’ve been working remotely at a workplace with no vaccine mandate, and they’re uncertain of the vaccine intake of their coworkers. Monkhouse said that this specific concern is unlikely to be a problem if employers are holding parties at restaurants as many provinces have vaccine mandates for eating in at a restaurant.

Zoom parties may be another option, but after another year of this pandemic, Furness does not think they will appeal.

“It’s going to depend on the individual culture at a particular organization,” he said, adding that many have “Zoom exhaustion” this far into the pandemic.

Despite the COVID-19 fears, there likely will be some companies that hold indoor holiday parties, and Furness said that if employers do go that route, they should be trying to make them as safe as possible.

“If I were tasked with, ‘You must host a holiday party, make this as safe as possible,’ yes, vaccine mandates, but also rapid tests at the door,” he suggested. “No one comes in without [a rapid test]. That would actually go a long way towards keeping the room safe. And how many HEPA filters are we going to have? I mean, who’s doing the math into how big is the airspace, how many people are going to be there? How many portable HEPA filters do we need to have? So if we have vaccine mandates and rapid testing and you’re scrubbing the air — that’s a party I might even go to.”

He added that air filtration is an important part of making a space safe during COVID-19 that many do not think about.

If you do end up attending an indoor, in-person office party, Monkhouse pointed out that staying inside all the time may have made our networking skills a bit “rusty,” and watching your behaviour is important.

“That’s something, especially for employees to be careful about,” he said. “For employers, it’s mostly about sure that you’re providing a safe environment, […] just really making sure that people are going to feel safe and you’re not going to have additional issues.” 



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