Bars not required to report COVID-19 infections or to close for cleaning: Quebec health authorities

MONTREAL — In the past three days, two Montreal-area bars have announced that staff or patrons had COVID-19 infections, and both added a note that may not have reassured patrons as much as they hoped.

Both said they had chosen to publicize the infections on their own, with one deciding to close for cleaning too, without being asked by authorities to do either thing.

“Although we have not been contacted by Quebec Public Health,” wrote management of La Voûte bar in Old Montreal on Friday, “it is our civic responsibility to inform you.”

They’re right, say public health authorities: bars are not required to warn clients in these cases, or to close.

“A bar does not have to close if there has been a [person who tested positive] that frequented it during his or her infectious period,” said Marie-Claude Lacasse, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s health department.

This, however, is because health authorities are supposed to already be on top of the situation through contact tracing, and their system doesn’t rely on establishments reporting this kind of concern.

Instead, it starts with individual people’s positive test results and works backwards, including checking if they’ve been at a bar or restaurant.

“These are assessments that are made by the public health [regional authorities], depending on the situation,” wrote Lacasse.

For example, in the case of a bar, was the infected person an employee or a client? How long did they spend in the bar, and were people complying at the time with other health measures?

“In the same vein, a public place or a workplace is not necessarily closed if a positive case has been present,” she said. It depends on a variety of factors.

It’s not that being forthcoming is to be discouraged, others said.

“It would be weird for us to say no, right,” if a bar owner wanted to take that initiative, said Jean Nicolas Aubé, a spokesperson for Montreal’s public health department.

However, he thinks people should know that contract tracers get to work quickly on every single positive test result, contacting the person involved.

“It generally is within the day. It’s very fast,” said Aubé.

Montreal’s public health department doesn’t comment on specific contact tracing cases, including the two bar-associated ones this week, he said.

An infectious diseases specialist agreed that it can’t hurt to give people more warning,

“As a physician I would say that is an admirable effort,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton of McGill, speaking of bar owners’ COVID-19 transparency.

However, he’d want to make sure they “can do it in a way that, as much as possible, protects the right to privacy of people’s medical information,” he said.

Oughton also said people shouldn’t panic at the idea that they won’t always hear about cases they crossed paths with. The risk should still be fairly low, and it’s important to remember that prior to this kind of announcement, “what [public health] did behind the scenes is invisible.”

Closing and doing a deep clean makes a lot of sense for a business owner for other reasons, however, said Oughton.

“From a practical perspective, if I were a customer and I found out there were cases at a bar and the bar knew and didn’t say anything… I don’t think that would be a very smart public relations route,” he said.

There’s one last thing to keep in mind about human nature—a reason not to announce every single positive case, he said.

“Would I recommend that every single business declare every time they have an employee or customer who’s positive?” he asked.

“My concerns there are… you hear an alert the first time, it catches your attention. You hear an alert the hundredth time, it loses its impact.”

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