Coronavirus: Quebec threatens construction, manufacturing sectors with more restrictions

A worksite is seen Friday May 8, 2020 in Montreal. As Quebec's construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city's building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it's "business as usual" and are confident the market remains robust. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz.

Quebec’s labour minister on Friday threatened to impose more restrictions on the province’s construction and manufacturing sectors for allegedly flouting health orders.

Jean Boulet said in a statement he’s received many reports of non-compliance connected to the two sectors since the government imposed new restrictions Jan. 9. He did not, however, provide details about the number of problematic companies or the nature of the violations.

The new measures — in effect until at least Feb. 8 — require the two industries to limit operations to essential activities and to reduce the number of workers in factories and on construction sites. Most other businesses across Quebec deemed non-essential have been closed since December.

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Quebec’s new health orders also include a provincewide curfew from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m., in an attempt to reduce COVID-19 transmission and reduce the strain on the health system from rising hospitalizations.

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On Friday, Quebec reported 1,918 new COVID-19 cases and 62 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus, including nine that occurred in the prior 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 27, to 1,496, and 231 people were in intensive care, a rise of one.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said Friday on Twitter it was too early to say if the new restrictions are having an impact.

Boulet, meanwhile, said if construction and manufacturing companies don’t reduce operations and adhere to the other health orders, the government would further restrict their activities.

“If the problem persists, the Quebec government will take its responsibilities and will not hesitate to close construction sites or businesses as well as issue tickets to offenders,” he said.

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Quebec’s workplace health and safety board said it issued 846 COVID-19 warning letters at 185 manufacturing facilities between Oct. 19, 2020 and Jan. 14, 2021. During that same period, the safety board issued 2,715 warning letters to 16 construction businesses and at 724 construction sites.

The board says businesses can be fined if they fail to comply with health orders after they receive warning letters. Between March 2020 and Jan. 14, 2021, the board issued 81 fines and ordered two businesses and 23 construction sites to close. Those numbers, however, don’t include closures by public health authorities.

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Jacques Létourneau, president one of Quebec’s largest labour federations, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, said Boulet’s warning was “good news.” Quebec’s workplace safety board is doing a good job, Létourneau said in an interview Friday, but he said it lacked inspectors. He said he would like to see more fines issued to employers who break the rules.

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Police said they issued 740 tickets to people violating curfew rules during the first two nights the order was in effect. Noelle Didierjean, a community organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, said that number was a “disgrace” given that only 81 fines had been given to businesses since March for allegedly violating health orders.

“It shows that the government cares about protecting business, they care about protecting profits, and they don’t actually care that much about keeping people safe,” she said in an interview Friday.

The government’s enforcement priorities are putting the responsibility for public health on individuals, Didierjean said, rather than on the root of the problem, which she said is workplace outbreaks.

The Canadian Press recently contacted three construction industry associations, who all said they hadn’t reduced operations since the new health order had been imposed. Industry representatives said all ongoing work is essential.

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“Everything that is in progress is considered essential,” Guillaume Houle, spokesperson for the Association de la construction du Quebec, said in a recent interview.

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François Bernier, vice-president of an association representing entrepreneurs in housing, said 20,000 projects are scheduled for delivery in the first half of 2021 and respecting those commitments, he added, is also essential.

A third association representing companies that construct major infrastructure said activity in the sector is typically low at this time of year. But, the spokesman said, construction on the light rail network in the Montreal area is going ahead.

Quebec’s national institute of public health says 33 outbreaks tied to 134 infections were reported on construction sites between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2 — 4.5 per cent of all workplace outbreaks.

“There is nobody who can boast of being perfect in the management of the pandemic and the construction sector is no exception,” Houle said.

“On the other hand, we took charge, we have a guide with very strict sanitary measures to respect on construction sites and we reminded our members last week that these health measures must be applied as strictly as possible.”

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Quebec has reported 238,745 infections and 8,938 deaths linked to the virus.

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— With files from the Canadian Press’ Pierre Saint-Arnaud

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