Surge in COVID-19 dims Diwali festivities in the GTA as public health officials urge caution

Diwali celebrations kick off Saturday, but the Hindu festival of lights will look very different this year due to the surge in daily case counts of COVID-19.

South Asian community urged to celebrate safely during pandemic

Anum Butt packs a box of sweets for Diwali. Her parents' store, Al-Karam, has seen a spike in online orders during the pandemic. (Michael Cole /CBC)

Diwali celebrations in the Greater Toronto Area will look very different this year as politicians and public health officials urge people to observe the festival safely amid a surge in daily case counts of COVID-19.

Shops normally buzzing during the festive season have already noticed a difference, says Vishal Ram, owner of  A1 Sweets and Restaurant on Trafalgar Road in Oakville.

"We actually scaled back what we would normally do," Ram told CBC News Friday. 

Diwali, which begins Saturday, is one of the most popular festivals in Hinduism. The multi-day celebration symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness and good over evil. It's usually a time of fireworks, delivering sweets in person to loved ones and getting together with family and friends at home and in restaurants.

But with daily case counts soaring, the province placing more restrictions on several regions, including Peel, Hamilton and York and Premier Doug Ford warning Ontario is "staring down the barrel of another lockdown," public health officials are calling on the South Asian community, and merchants like Ram, to take measures to protect people from the disease.

"We put our tent outside, but we decided not to do it this year because we were concerned about the safety of not only our employees, but also our customers," Ram said.

Several shops are reporting an uptick in online sales because of the pandemic. Down the street from A1 Sweets, Anum Butt is busy filling orders of colourful sweets for delivery during Diwali.

"It's just a little bit of a treat that they can send without going in person and actually celebrating together," said the manager of Al-Karam, a shop that specializes in South Asian desserts.

Meantime, Brampton Coun. Harkirat Singh is asking people to adapt their plans during the pandemic.

Indian Hindu women play with fireworks to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in Allahabad, India, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013. Hindus across the country are celebrating Diwali where people decorate their homes with lights and let off fireworks. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh) (Rajesh Kumar Singh/The Associated Press)

"We're asking residents to avoid social gatherings. So get creative, celebrate it online with your friends through video chat, call them up," Singh said.

Ontario health authorities have unveiled new projections showing the province is on track to see 6,500 new daily COVID-19 cases by the middle of next month. That's why, Singh says, plans in Brampton are changing this year.

On this Nov. 14, he added, normally "there would be fireworks everywhere. Our stores would be busy, restaurant places of worship, everything would be packed. But as we know with the danger of COVID-19, we're asking everybody, just stay at home, celebrate with their family."

Harkirat Singh, a Brampton city councillor, speaking on Zoom. He says he's changing the way he celebrates as Peel Public Health officials urge the public to keep Diwali festivities within their own households. (CBC News)

In the meantime, stores like Ram's and Butt's are doing their best to ensure safety protocols are followed, ensuring the festive season remains a healthy one.

"'It's kind of just having hope and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and saying that, you know, we're going to get through this together as a society, as a country, " Butt said.


Natalie Kalata

Senior Reporter, CBC News

Natalie is an award-winning senior reporter for CBC News Network and CBC The National specializing in breaking news. Whether it's a terror attack or a royal tour, she brings the stories to you. Natalie lives in Toronto with her husband and family.

with files from Nick Boisvert