Quebec’s health ministry says large gatherings of up to 250 people are only permitted in “very rare” and “exceptional” cases in designated novel coronavirus red zones as confusion swirls over what is allowed and what is not.
The statement issued Wednesday comes after authorities cited “erroneous information” about its new policy as part of a ministerial decree issued in late October.
The government says large gatherings are still banned for rental and community halls as well as other indoor public places in areas on red alert, which remain under a partial lockdown until at least Nov. 23. Quebec also still prohibits “activity related to business tourism” such as conventions, non-essential and virtual business meetings and trade shows.
However, the health ministry says essential meetings of up to 250 people could be authorized — but only if they meet certain criteria.
The government specifies “only organized activities necessary and even essential for the pursuit of the activities of a public or private organization” could be given the green light in “very rare and exceptional situations” in declared red zones.
Some exceptional cases include vital meetings for teaching establishments, as well as within the framework of a court or diplomatic missions, according to the government.
“The number of people present must be kept to the minimum necessary and a distance of two metres must be kept between people,” the statement reads.
The new policy allowing some large gatherings to take place has raised questions among different organizations. Among them is the Association professionnel de congrès du Québec (APCQ), which facilitates conferences in hotels and other venues.
The APCQ had issued a letter to members this week, saying that halls can be rented out to a maximum of 250 people for essential meetings so long as health measures are followed. On Wednesday, the health ministry then issued a statement clarifying that large meetings are allowed in rare cases.
But even the few exemptions laid out by the government are being questioned by health experts as the province grapples with the second wave.
Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist, says given the high number of new COVID-19 cases in Quebec over the past two months, he wonders what “is essential enough to warrant in-person meetings.”
“I think we’ve seen examples of this kind of confusion over different messages applying to different groups and leading to a loss of faith in the overall message,” he said. “So I think it does pose that kind of risk.”
Oughton also said large gatherings would almost certainly cause inter-regional travel, which Quebec has discouraged to stem the spread of the virus. He worries such meetings could become “superspreader” events, and questioned whether anyone would be monitoring them for adherence to public health guidelines.
Bar and restaurant owner Paul Desbaillets expressed outrage at the thought of 250 person meetings being allowed, while restaurant dining rooms remain closed.
“It’s becoming very hypocritical,” the Burgundy Lion Group operator told Global News.