Curfew ‘best of the worst options’ as COVID-19 maintains hold on Canada: experts

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WATCH: Quebec imposes curfew, tougher lockdown – Jan 6, 2021

Canada’s biggest provinces face increasingly dire and dangerous circumstances as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

Tightening the grip on pandemic controls is the next logical step. Quebec became the first to do so on Wednesday, levying a nighttime curfew.

Read more: Quebec imposes curfew, tightens lockdown restrictions as coronavirus health crisis deepens

In a province as inundated with cases as Quebec, experts say lowering the proverbial boom is to be expected, but a curfew is unlikely to be the panacea it’s looking for.

“I don’t think they’re hanging their hat on this particular intervention,” said David Buckeridge, an epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal.

“But they’re telling people — this is serious.”

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Why a curfew?

Countries, cities and states around the world have imposed curfews on residents and businesses to try to curb the spread of COVID-19, but its definition has varied.

In the United States, curfew measures in some states have been framed as a compromise between a full lockdown and keeping businesses open. In the U.K., a November nighttime curfew applied only to pubs and restaurants. In Australia’s Victoria, an August curfew echoed stay-at-home orders, leaving only essential trips exempt.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Quebec imposes curfew amid rising COVID-19 case numbers' Coronavirus: Quebec imposes curfew amid rising COVID-19 case numbers
Coronavirus: Quebec imposes curfew amid rising COVID-19 case numbers – Jan 6, 2021

The reason to impose a curfew, however, is the same across the board — reduce transmission.

That’s top of mind in Quebec, where a second wave of the pandemic is progressing dangerously.

Quebec’s curfew will take effect Jan. 9, from the hours of 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. People will not be allowed out of their homes other than for work between those hours, Premier Francois Legault said in a Wednesday press conference. Grocery and corner stores must close at 7:30 p.m., though pharmacies will be allowed to extend their hours. Primary schools will reopen as scheduled the week of Jan. 11.

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But implementing a curfew to try to get it under control isn’t as drastic as it sounds, said Christopher Labos, an epidemiologist and cardiologist based in Montreal.

Quebec was already under a partial lockdown, meaning all non-essential businesses and schools have been closed for weeks. That lockdown was extended Wednesday to at least Feb. 8.

“A curfew is really just an extension of the preexisting principles. It’s expanding lockdown measures to a certain degree,” Labos said.

“The attempt to use different language is to reinforce to some people that this is still important, that we have a long road to go in terms of controlling this virus.”

Read more: Stricter COVID-19 measures, curfew arrive as health experts warn Quebec hospitals stretched thin

Perhaps that’s what Quebecers need, he said. Virus-related hospitalizations have once again spiked in the province, with nearly 1,400 in beds across the province as of Wednesday. Deaths have climbed too — more than 8,400 people have died since March.

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“It’s all about limiting the social activities of people leaving their house for non-critical reasons,” Labos said.

“In a practical sense, this might not impact the vast majority of people, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a curfew and potentially contain the small number of events going on behind the scenes.”

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Effectiveness unclear

So, how much of an effect could a curfew have on an invisible virus that’s already spreading rapidly, day and night?

Experts agree it’s very hard to quantify.

“These terms — lockdown, curfew — it may not be exactly the same thing everywhere,” Buckeridge said.

“Because of that, it’s challenging to disentangle how effective a curfew is on its own.”

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Coronavirus: Curfew concerns rise in anticipation of new lockdown measures – Jan 6, 2021

A November study published in the journal Nature, which analyzed the effectiveness of government interventions amid COVID-19 worldwide, found “individual movement restrictions” — i.e. curfews, lockdowns, closing and restricting gatherings — were, overall, the most effective. However, that effectiveness varied greatly between different countries and across the other layers of non-pharmaceutical interventions each country had applied, and when.

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Measuring the impact of a curfew will also require a clear understanding of where cases are coming from in the first place, said Joanna Merckx, an affiliate member in the department of epidemiology at McGill University and the director of Medical Affairs bioMérieux.

Every element that decreases contact will have an impact, said Merckx, but there’s no “golden grail.”

“A curfew is at the end of one side of a spectrum. It’s really restricting,” she said. “But we need to look at the much broader picture.”

Read more: Done properly, night curfews can be helpful in curbing coronavirus outbreaks, experts say

Experts say the extent of a curfew’s effectiveness might come down to how it’s enforced.

Enforcement will be a challenge, said Labos, but there needs to be some element of it “or else no one will take it seriously.”

Quebec has instructed local police to enforce the guidelines. Those disobeying the curfew could face fines ranging between $1,000 and $6,000.

But the signal imposing a curfew sends might just be enough to boost compliance, Labos said.

“Most people do want to follow the law,” he said. “Just the messaging … the fact that this is now mandatory, most people will do that.”

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Coronavirus: Legault says Quebec can’t close essential businesses despite tightened restrictions – Jan 6, 2021

Canada’s curfew appetite

The prospect of a curfew has been floated on-and-off by several provinces.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said in November he was mulling it, but backed away.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney said in December that “there are not a lot of options left” for the province. A spokesperson for the premier told Global News in an email Wednesday that there are no plans for a curfew.

Ontario might be the closest to following suit. When asked about the possibility in the province, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday that “everything’s on the table.”

“But let’s see where the numbers go,” he added.

Read more: Australia’s ‘extreme’ 2nd lockdown curbed coronavirus — here’s what it took

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Canadians don’t all necessarily balk at the idea, either.

A survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies, conducted in November, found that 67 per cent of Canadians would back a temporary nighttime curfew to curb viral spread in dire circumstances.

The results did vary by age, with young people less disposed to the notion. The least amount of support by region landed in the three provinces currently in the worst shape — Alberta, Ontario and Quebec — with two-thirds of residents there giving the thumbs-up.

“Curfews aren’t something we’re used to, but it’s not unheard of and I think Canadians know that,” Labos said. “Most people understand that the only way we can reduce transmission is by not having person-to-person contact.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Yaffe defends lockdown in Toronto, Peel region as necessary' Coronavirus: Yaffe defends lockdown in Toronto, Peel region as necessary
Coronavirus: Yaffe defends lockdown in Toronto, Peel region as necessary – Nov 23, 2020

Send a message

Ultimately, “a big part of this is the psychological message,” Buckeridge said.

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“Quebec is looking at their options. They’re trying to sort the best of the worst options right now,” he said.

“What’s being enforced, to some extent, is an attempt to get people to understand the importance of these interventions and internalize that.”

While it’s on the more aggressive side of controls, it’s a necessary one that might allow some “breathing room” for overwhelmed health care systems and hospitals, Buckeridge said.

“Is it going to solve all our problems? I don’t think so, but it’s part of the package now.”

— with files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Kalina Laframboise

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