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Quebec and Ontario are hardest hit by coronavirus. Why are their reopening plans different?

Coronavirus outbreak: Quebec to gradually reopen some regions beginning next week
WATCH: Quebec’s deputy premier Geneviève Guilbault announced on Wednesday the gradual reopening plan of certain regions of Quebec beginning next Monday, May 4. She said that roadblocks and police will be removed gradually from roads to allow people to move between regions, starting with Laurentians, Lanaudière and Chaudière-Appalaches.

Ontario and Quebec are the two provinces hardest hit by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Canada, yet they appear to be taking different approaches in the quest to get their communities and economies moving again.

Together, the populous provinces account for more than 80 per cent of the total COVID-19 cases reported in Canada and more than 90 per cent of deaths linked to the virus, according to federal public health figures.

READ MORE: Ontario set to release ‘sector-specific’ workplace reopening guidelines

But even as Quebec’s case and death counts continue to climb, Premier François Legault has announced plans to first reopen some businesses and some elementary schools and daycares outside Montreal starting in the first half of May, leaving it up to parents to decide whether they want to send their children back to class.

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On Wednesday, the provincial government said it will also start easing restrictions on travel between its regions next week and adjust those measures based on how the situation unfolds in the coming weeks.

Quebec’s neighbour, meanwhile, appears to be taking things more slowly.

This week, the Ontario government extended school closures until May 31 and on Monday revealed its framework for reopening the economy, which explained the criteria the province will consider before loosening public health restrictions — but not when that would happen.

The difference in the provinces’ approaches may boil down, in part, to different “readings” of their respective epidemiological data, said Nicholas King, an associate professor in the bio-medical ethics unit at McGill University.

Coronavirus: Province gets ready to send Quebecers back to work
Coronavirus: Province gets ready to send Quebecers back to work

In Quebec, seniors residences and long-term care homes account for about 80 per cent of the deaths in the province, with large clusters of cases and deaths in a handful of homes.

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“Legault has made a big deal of the fact that the vast majority of deaths in Quebec have occurred in long-term care facilities and among the very elderly,” King said.

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“It’s because of this profile of who’s actually dying from the disease and where the cases seem to be concentrated that you might have some differences.”

This could be why Quebec has chosen to act on schools specifically right out of the gate, King said.

The “tremendous amount of uncertainty” that endures amid the pandemic could also influence the speed at which officials are making decisions,” said Concordia University economics professor Moshe Lander.

“Any decision — health, economics, lifestyle, whatever — any decision is always more difficult under uncertainty than certainty,” he said.

“You’re always going to have people that are more risk-averse, that are going to come forward and say: ‘It’s too uncertain for us to be able to make that decision.'”

‘I’m just not going to do it’ says Doug Ford on opening schools
‘I’m just not going to do it’ says Doug Ford on opening schools

Some other factors at play as Ontario and Quebec chart their paths forward could be the leadership style and political popularity of their two premiers, suggested Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

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“Quebec was one of the provinces that adopted bold measures really early on … and now it seems that Quebec wants to be the first province to reopen in a systematic way,” he said.

“[Legault] has a lot of popular support and maybe that allows him to be a bit bolder in terms of reopening society, even if it makes a lot of people nervous.”

Over in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford was “criticized at the beginning of the crisis” but has since implemented strict public health measures, said Béland.

“Maybe he’s not in as a strong position politically to be so bold in re-opening society because he’s more likely to be criticized,” he said.

Which plan is better? It’s hard to say

That said, Béland suggested Quebec’s premier is “taking a risk” because the COVID-19 situation could easily change, upending the province’s announced plans.

“You create expectations in the mind of people who want to go back to work or go back to school and then this might not pan out the way you said.”

Ontario has taken a more “prudent” approach so far by leaving hard dates off the table early on, Béland argued.

READ MORE: Ontario’s COVID-19 recovery plan doesn’t have dates — but that’s not a bad thing, experts say

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From a public health perspective, King said it might be better to keep residents isolated for longer because that limits the spread of the virus, but physical distancing and quarantine also have their own impact on mental health and employment.

“I would say that the pressures that both premiers face will be really in doing this delicate balancing act between the risks and benefits, both of continued sheltering in place and reopening,” he said.

In the end, King suggested the two provinces’ approaches aren’t wildly different. Both are articulating “certain preconditions” that need to be met and are heeding advice from public health officials, he said.

“They differ somewhat … but both are essentially are saying, ‘We’re not just going to start reopening for no reason at all,'” he said.

Provinces should be more coordinated, expert argues

In fact, all Canada’s provinces and territories have agreed with the federal government to meet a list of seven criteria before easing public health restrictions in their jurisdictions, but the list didn’t include any measurable targets or timelines.

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau stresses collaboration behind guidelines for reopening provincial economies
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau stresses collaboration behind guidelines for reopening provincial economies

Even though some provinces are moving at different speeds, Canada’s deputy chief medical officer insisted Wednesday that officials across the country are “on the same page” and the provinces will “need to use their own epidemiological analysis over time to analyse the options to consider.”

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Lander, however, argued he thinks the provinces should be moving “in lock step.”

“I’d like to see a lot more coordination,” he said. “… We don’t want the overly active Quebec economy bringing the virus into Ontario or vice versa … and that really requires leadership up at the federal level.

“You can’t have different provinces racing ahead at different speeds, even if they meet those federal criteria. .. The fact is that this country is effectively borderless.”

READ MORE: Trudeau open to ‘voluntary’ coronavirus tracking app but says privacy paramount

In addition to Quebec and Ontario, the following provinces have also either kick-started or announced their plans to loosen public health restrictions and breathe life back in their economies:

— With a file from The Canadian Press