Quebec Premier François Legault announced new restrictions on Tuesday in a bid to get transmission of the novel coronavirus under control in the province and ease pressure on the health-care system.
The premier ordered the shutdown of all non-essential businesses from Dec. 25 to Jan. 11, 2021. Essential businesses allowed to operate include banks, grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, garages and pet shops.
Big box stores like Costco, or Walmart, will remain open but won’t be allowed to sell non-essential products.
“It’s a matter of equity for all businesses,” Legault said.
Marc Fortin, president of the Retail Council of Canada in Quebec said it’s a relief to be allowed to stay open until Dec. 24, but the shutdown will hurt a lot of businesses.
Not being open on Boxing Day means big losses, according to Fortin who cited a recent study the Retail Council carried out for Léger Marketing on shoppers’intentions.
“Twenty-three per cent of Quebecers wanted to shop for Boxing Day and it represented over 37 per cent of their spending,” Fortin said. “So it’s a big chunk of spending for the holidays for most consumers.”
While Fortin said it’s too soon to tell what impact the shutdown will have on retailers, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some stores seeking bankruptcy protection come January or February.
Legault said in an interview Monday that the holidays are an opportunity to impose more measures since schools and many sectors are normally shut down during that time period.
High school and grade school students across Quebec will be moving to distance learning on Dec. 17 and will return to in-person classes on Jan. 11.
Daycare centres will remain open, but Legault is urging parents to keep their children at home during the three-week break. School daycare services will be made available to children whose parents work in essential services.
Furthermore, Legault said office employees will be required to work from home during the same time period. Exceptions will be made for employees whose presence is necessary to provide services. Legault said the rules apply to both private and public sector employees.
A partial lockdown was already in place in a large swath of the province’s red zones, where restaurant dining rooms, gyms, cinemas and museums were ordered closed until at least Jan. 11.
Legault said the province’s yellow zones will be bumped up to orange and oranges zones will be upgraded to red starting on Thursday until Jan. 10 inclusively. Private gatherings are banned in red zones, and are limited to six people in orange zones.
While restrictions are being tightened across the province, Legault said some rules are being relaxed.
People who are single or live alone, will be allowed to join a family bubble, accompanied by their children, but must stick to the same bubble for the duration of the holiday season.
Outdoor activities, such as ski lessons and hockey games, will be allowed in public spaces provided social distancing and other public health guidelines are followed. Those activities will be limited to a maximum of eight people. Family gatherings in backyards, however, are not allowed.
The restrictions come as Quebec reported 1,741 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and a spike in hospitalizations linked to the illness. The number of patients in hospital stands at 959, an increase of 69 from the previous day. Of those, three more people are intensive care for a total of 125.
Earlier in the day, Health Minister Christian Dubé said on Twitter that the situation in hospitals was worrisome and warned some facilities had reached maximum capacity.
“It’s to reduce pressure on our emergency rooms and our staff that we’re asking Quebecers to make all these sacrifices,” he said.
Dr. Don Sheppard, director and founder of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity, known as MI4, agreed a shutdown is necessary.
“In fact, it’s arguably necessary now and not on Dec. 25. The simple fact that’s driving the need for a shutdown is the number of hospitalizations and the hospital bed capacity,” he said.
Sheppard added that hospitals in Quebec have been unable to resume 100 per cent of their activities between the first and second waves of the pandemic.
“We maxed out at 80 per cent of surgeries and now we’re cancelling surgeries and other care all around the province just to look after the COVID patients who are being admitted,” he said.
“This is the real cost to the health-care system — not just the deaths due to COVID, which are terrible in and of themselves, but the slowdowns in cancer care, cardiac care and surgery, which are going to have a huge cost on the health of Quebecers.”
Sheppard fears the government’s shutdown won’t be enough.
“The shortest shutdowns, lockdowns that have had any effect on case numbers have been four weeks,” he said.
He explained that during a lockdown, people are in their family bubbles or units and that it takes more than 14 days for the virus that was circulating in the community to make its way through a family unit.
Legault, however, is confident the province is striking the right balance.
“We discussed many scenarios, one week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks…some businesses will be closed for maybe two weeks, some others for three weeks. I think it’s enough to curb the pandemic,” he said.
–With files from Global News’ Kalina Laframboise and Gloria Henriquez