Norway braces for a very different ‘jul’

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Christmas trees are in place, there are more holiday lights than ever and Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government is easing some restrictions on social gatherings. The holiday season known as “jul” in Norway won’t be the same, however, with warnings still in place against all large, traditional dinners, parties and travel.

Oslo’s official Christmas tree was lit up last Sunday at its traditional downtown site, but there’s no snow yet and the city’s adjacent boulevard Karl Johans Gate remains oddly empty, even during what used to be the morning rush hour. This photo was taken at around 8:30am on Monday.
PHOTO: NewsInEnglish.no/Morten Møst

“We want everyone to be able to celebrate Christmas with as many as possible, we deserve that, not least after this year,” Solberg said at another government press conference Wednesday.

“At the same time, we’re worried that holiday celebrations will lead to more infection,” Solberg added. “We don’t want to start the New Year with rising infection rates and more restrictions in January.”

That’s why the government has decided to keep most current restrictions on social gatherings in place, with a few exceptions: Norwegians are still urged to invite no more than five people into their homes until at least after New Year, except on two days during the holidays.

That means up to 10 guests can be invited, for example, on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, or any two other days or evenings in late December.

Solberg issued an important condition, though: The standard rule of staying at least a meter apart remains, and she urges two meters of social distancing for those especially at risk for the Corona virus including the elderly or people with other health problems.

The one- to two-meter rule also applies around the table, Solberg stressed, when gifts are exchanged or when cake and coffee are served. “If you can’t host a holiday party without being able to maintain at least a meter’s distance among your 10 guests, you’ll have to invite fewer,” Solberg said.

She also urged maintaining a distance of two meters from anyone coming from areas with high infection rates. That currently includes, for example, Oslo, Bergen, Fredrikstad and Sarpsborg.

The government and state public health institute are also urging Norwegians to start and complete Christmas shopping early, and to shop in the mornings instead of late in the afternoon when many stores tend to be most crowded. The goal is to avoid crowding and instead spread customers throughout stores’ opening hours.

Most Christmas concerts, markets, theater performances and other special holiday events have already been cancelled, including, most recently, all of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra’s traditional concerts that run over three days and attract a few thousand people. Even traditional church services on Christmas Eve and throughout the week after will be limited to just 50 people.

Solberg said, however, that the government will make it possible for churches to open up during the holidays for “church wanderings,” that will allow people to come in, light candles, listen to music that will be played and have some time for solitude and reflection.

All travel continues to be discouraged unless it’s considered absolutely necessary. Solberg acknowledged that traveling home for Christmas can be justified as “necessary,” but her health minister, Bent Høie, stressed that “this is not the Christmas to travel abroad.” Both he and Solberg cited “a real danger” of bringing infection back to Norway, and reminded Norwegians that they’d all have to go through 10 days of quarantine when they return from any other country.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund