Quebec is dropping plans to impose a financial penalty on those who are unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Premier François Legault made the announcement Tuesday afternoon in Quebec City, during a briefing on the ongoing health crisis.
While the premier said the bill drawn up by the finance minister was ready to be tabled, he admitted the project was divisive and polarizing.
“It’s time to rebuild bridges between Quebecers,” he said in French. “It’s time to work together … so that Quebec remains a place where it is good to live.”
“My role is to try and bring Quebecers together and stay united as a people,” he went on to say. “This is why we won’t go ahead with the health contribution.
“I understand that this divides Quebecers and right now we need to build bridges to listen to each other. Quebecers must remain united.”
Plans for the tax were first brought to the table on Jan. 11, as pandemic-related hospitalizations fuelled by a surge in cases linked to the Omicron variant threatened to overwhelm an already strained health network.
At the time, Legault said the tax was under consideration due to the burden those who were unvaccinated were having on the health-care system.
He stated that while only 10 per cent of the eligible population was unvaccinated, they accounted for 50 per cent of hospitalizations.
Opposition parties in Quebec City were quick to react when news first surfaced Tuesday morning of the premier’s plan to backtrack.
The Parti Québécois accused Legault of making “yoyo decisions” and “playing poker” with Quebecers, while Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said the premier was governing the province according to the latest polls.
“He must have a poll that’s saying, you know, this is not popular anymore therefore I’m no longer doing it,” she said.
“Three days ago, he said that it was going to be a tax between $100 and $800. And today, he’s just saying: ‘We’re not going ahead anymore.'”
Legault, however, insisted that is not the case, saying the decision was made to avoid further dividing Quebecers and maintaining social peace.
Renaud Brossard, the Quebec director of the Canadian Tax Payers Federation, believes Legault did the right thing.
“The vaccine tax would have opened a Pandora’s box of issues for new health taxes, new ways to take money out of Quebecers pockets and we’re glad to see it will remain closed for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Spas and gyms to reopen
In addition to dropping the tax, Legault also announced the easing of some restrictions.
He pointed to an improving situation in hospitals and the return of health workers for the move.
“I am pleased to announce that on February 14, sports and artistic activities will reopen for adults for groups of up to 25 people,” he said. “Gyms and spas will also reopen at 50 per cent.”
In the last week, he said the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations had dropped from 3,278 to 2,852, while the number of absentee health workers had gone down from 12,000 to 10,600.
He warned however there’s a lot of catching up to do in terms of delayed surgeries and it’s necessary to move carefully.
“We have to remain careful, but we also have to balance that with our mental health and with our social cohesion,” Legault said.
The premier again insisted that the best way to accelerate the easing of restrictions was for people to get vaccinated.
To date, only 61 per cent of adults have gotten a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
He also had a message for people who continue to refuse to be vaccinated.
“Experts tell us you are more likely to go the hospital if you don’t have the vaccine,” he said, adding that outreach initiatives continue in an effort to boost vaccine uptake. “We want to help you and explain the risk.”
While many are rejoicing at the reopening of gyms and spas, other industries are feeling left out.
Bar owners fed up
Peter Sergakis, president of the Quebec bar owners union said members are fed up.
“I feel terrible, we feel terrible” he said, adding the Legault government needs to set a date for when bars will be allowed to resume operations.
Sergakis said many bar owners are planning to reopen on Feb. 11, even without the greenlight from the province.
“They don’t want to miss the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day which are the biggest days of the year,” he said.
Legault for his part stressed that the province’s reopening plan was based on recommendations from public health.
Meanwhile, the province’s top doctor defended the decision to not reopen bars just yet.
“The measures that we’ve been taking are based on science,” said Dr. Luc Boileau. “The way we progress is related to the psychological well-being of the population but also to the risk of contagion in different contexts.”
Boileau said research showed the risk of transmission of the virus in bars is very high, especially taking into account the Omicron variant which is very contagious.
While he didn’t give a date for reopening, Boileau said “it will certainly happen in the very near future.”
— With files from Global News’ Gloria Henriquez