Premier François Legault says Quebec businesses, museums and hair salons will be allowed to open on Feb. 8, but the curfew will remain in place across the province.
“The battle is not yet over,” Legault said during his Tuesday news briefing.
“We are going in the right direction, but we still have a lot of efforts to make in order to help our nursing staff and health-care staff. They have been on the front line for 11 months.”
He said the reopening of the province will be done gradually. CEGEP and university students will be allowed to slowly return to class, depending on the situation in each institution, he said.
Malls will be allowed to reopen across the province as well, but gathering in them will not be tolerated, Legault insisted.
“We are going to be very strict,” he said. “There’s no question of starting to have gatherings in shopping malls.”
Still working to protect hospitals
Legault said, even though hospital cases are declining, he is still worried about the situation there and he does not want to put more pressure on medical staff as they are already trying to catch up with delayed surgeries and treatments.
Currently 34 per cent of surgeries and other treatments are being delayed, Legault said.
The ban on visiting others in their homes remains in effect as does the mandatory work-from-home order for those who are able. The curfew will stay in effect, banning non-essential travel between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., in 11 regions, including Montreal.
“The most effective measure we have right now is the curfew,” said Legault, attributing the drop in hospitalizations to the measure.
Gyms will not be allowed to open in these 11 red zones, nor will movie theatres, Legault said.
Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said there is more heavy breathing in gyms, creating more of a risk of transmission.
Once more vaccines are delivered to Quebec’s seniors, the risk of hospitalization goes down for those under a certain age, Arruda said. Because of that, he said restrictions such as gym closures may be further scaled back.
Legault did not indicate when the curfew will be lifted, though he said a news conference will be held on Feb. 22 to reassess the situation and adjust public health restrictions as needed. He said restrictions will be reassessed every two weeks.
However, he said, officials are happy with the curfew for now as it is proving to be effective in deterring people from gathering in homes illegally.
6 regions get a break from restrictions
Six rural regions in the province will be allowed to push the curfew back to 9:30 p.m. and re-open restaurants, gyms, movie theatres and some indoor activities with strict public health rules in place.
Legault said those measures will include wearing a mask in movie theatres, but people will still have to be home by curfew.
Those regions include the Gaspé and Magdalen Islands, North Shore, Lower St-Lawrence, northern Quebec, Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean.
These zones account for about 10 per cent of the province’s population, said Public Health Minister Christian Dubé.
“That means 90 per cent of the population is still in red zones,” he said.
There are not going to be any roadblocks or fines given, but Legault said he is strongly encouraging people to stay in their own region rather than heading out to other areas.
If people do go out to cottages, they need to stay within their immediate family bubble rather than gathering with other family members or families, he said.
During the last week of January, Gaspé and the North Shore didn’t record a single new case of COVID-19 among their residents. There are fewer than five active cases in the Gaspé region.
Arruda said officials will be monitoring the known COVID-19 variants first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa closely and watching out for new mutations.
He said the lockdown hinges on the spread of variants and a surge in cases could lead to tightening restrictions once again.
Loosening restrictions ‘risky,’ expert says
The number of daily cases and hospitalizations are on the decline, nearly a month after the 8 p.m. curfew was imposed and more than six weeks after non-essential stores were ordered closed.
A recent study by Quebec’s public health institute, the INSPQ, found that the curfew had succeeded in reducing the number of home visits by half, though experts say there are other factors at play.
Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist at the INSPQ who was not involved in the study, said closing retailers kept more people at home, away from potential contacts, and there were also clearer instructions from the province to avoid gathering.
De Serres said the situation has improved considerably since early January, when hospitals were worried about running out of ICU beds. But things could change again quickly if the rate of transmission once again increases.
“I think that prudence is necessary because of the certainty that these variants are around us,” he said, referring to the more contagious strains of the virus first discovered in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa.
Benoit Barbeau, a virologist in the department of biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal, called the prospect of loosening restrictions “risky” because of the presence of variants and a slower-than-anticipated vaccine rollout.
He characterized it as a short-term gamble by the government to see if cases start to go up, in which case it can still respond quickly with tighter restrictions.
“It’s a very delicate and fragile situation, whereby relaxing conditions, you really need to make sure, you have the right testing in place so that whatever goes wrong, you can quickly detect it and make sure you can quickly go back to those restrictive measures,” Barbeau said.
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