The Greater Montreal area, the Capitale Nationale area in Quebec City, as well as the Chaudières-Appalaches region are being bumped up into the red zone under the province’s novel coronavirus regional alert system as cases and outbreaks surge in the province.
Quebec Premier François Legault made the announcement during a press conference in Montreal attended by both Health Minister Christain Dubé and public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda.
The situation is critical,” Legault said. “The cases are rising, If we don’t want our hospitals to be submerged, if we want to limit our number of deaths we must act strongly right now.”
Over the last week, the government has been urging people to limit socializing and cancel private events, such as dinners and barbecues, in order to stem the tide of the virus. Officials say the recent rise in cases is a result of community transmission.
Quebec reported 896 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, the province’s highest single-day tally in months. As of Monday, the province has recorded more than 72,000 cases and 5,826 deaths.
The red zone designation comes with additional restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
“We give ourselves four weeks with these measures to see if we can stop the second wave,” Legault said. “I truly hope we do but I cannot and will not make false promises.”
Legault said bars, casinos, reception halls, theatres, libraries and museums will all be closed for a 28-day period, effective Wednesday at midnight.
Restaurants will be limited to take-out only but other businesses, such as hair salons and retail stores will be allowed to stay open.
Furthermore, residents in affected zones will be prohibited from hosting anyone in their homes.
Legault said only people living at the same address will be allowed inside a home.
There will be exceptions such as if an elderly person needs a caregiver or a parent needs a babysitter, or someone needs a plumber. But in all instances only one additional person can enter a private residence at a time.
In seniors’ residences, the same rule will apply in that a resident will only be allowed to receive care from one person at a time and a maximum of two people per day.
Under the new restrictions, places of worship will be limited to 25 people at any one time.
For outdoor spaces, people will have to maintain a two-metre distance from each other at all times.
How the new measures will be enforced has yet to be determined.
“We said for many weeks that we prefer not to enter a house without a mandate,” Dubé said. “Our deputy premier, Geneviève Guilbault, is looking at every measure that we can take… how we can enforce the full respect of the new measures of not having any party at home.”
Restaurant owners shocked
Restaurant owners were quick to express their dismay, saying they feel unfairly targeted.
In a news release the Quebec restaurateurs association pointed to repeated government assertions that the virus wasn’t spreading in bars and restaurants but in private gatherings and homes.
Contrary to private gatherings, restaurants provide a safe and controlled environment, the association said.
“It’s a mistake,” said Alain Creton, owner of Chez Alexandre restaurant in downtown Montreal and part of the Peel Street Merchants’ association.
He agrees that restaurants that fail to comply with public health guidelines should be shut down but believes the added restrictions will backfire.
“C’mon, all friends, all kids are going to get together,” he said. “Never mind if they say six people, they’re going to get together, they’ve had enough of that.”
Legault, however, said that because of the high level of community transmission people have to avoid all social gatherings.
“For the next month we have to avoid socializing,” he said. “Restaurants, bars, entertainment venues are places we go to socialize and what we want is to protect services that are more essential.”
Creton also fears many restaurants will not survive a second round of restrictions.
“They cannot pay their rent with delivery,” he said.
Legault acknowledged the new measures will create additional economic hardships for certain sectors.
“We’re working on measures to compensate owners,” Legault said.
The Quebec restaurateurs association agreed they would need to be compensated.
They are calling on the government to suspend the payment of commercial leases and to prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for not paying rent.
They’re also asking for a remittance holiday on taxes including the GST and the provincial sales tax due sept. 30. and the cancellation or reimbursement of property taxes paid, equivalent to the number of months in which restaurant dining rooms had to remain closed.
Finally, the association wants to be compensated for the loss of perishable stocks.
Government pushes for priority testing
On Monday, the government also announced it will be prioritizing testing for people with COVID-19 symptoms and those who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
People who don’t fall into either category could be refused access to screening, unless recommended by a health professional.
The government says the move is necessary to improve contact tracing and control outbreaks of the virus.
“In the current context, while Quebec is experiencing a significant increase in cases and community transmission is accelerating, it is essential to prioritize screening tests that have a better probability of finding cases in order to quickly begin investigations,” the health ministry said in a written statement.
The ministry also recommends those who have come into contact with infected people to remain in isolation 14 days after the last “risky” contact, even after a negative test.
Those with COVID-19 symptoms who test negative are also being asked to self-isolate until they no longer show symptoms of the illness.
Dubé said as far as contact tracing goes, Quebecers can expect to see a COVID-tracing app in the next week.
Monday marks Legault’s first public appearance since he has been at home as a preventive measure.
Although he tested negative for COVID-19, Legault had been self-isolating as a precaution after a meeting two weeks ago with federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who later tested positive.
— With files from the Canadian Press