1,500 people kicked off Quebec's Oka beach over failure to respect COVID-19 rules

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MONTREAL — A spokesman for Quebec's provincial park network says some 1,500 people were kicked off a popular beach west of Montreal Wednesday after a number of them refused to respect COVID-19 health orders.

Simon Boivin says Oka beach, which is located inside Oka provincial park, was ordered closed at about 3 p.m. after certain groups refused to respect physical distancing rules and became verbally abusive to park staff.

Boivin says the beach's capacity is normally 5,000 but that had been cut to 2,500 because of the pandemic and was further reduced to 1,500 after crowding was observed last week.

As of today, he says the beach has reopened with a capacity of 750 and a stern warning that anyone who violates the rules will be asked to leave immediately.

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon says the beach normally attracts a quiet crowd and he believes Wednesday's rowdiness was an isolated event.

But he says the city is discussing solutions with park management if the situation doesn't improve, including the possibility of banning alcohol.

Quevillon says he believes a daylong strike at junior colleges as well as the absence of other open venues attracted a younger and rowdier crowd than usual, and he says many were drinking heavily.

"People can't meet on private land, bars are closed," he said.

"People want to go to the beach because it allows people to meet without being too much at risk."

Boivin says the government agency that manages provincial parks, known as the Société des établissements de plein air du Québec, or Sépaq, takes its mission to allow access to its parks seriously.

"But it can't be done in a situation that puts citizens or employees in danger," he said in a phone interview.

He says current COVID-19 health orders require people who don't live together to stay two metres apart when outdoors, or wear masks when physical distancing is impossible.

Boivin says the parks agency will monitor Oka beach in the coming days and decide what to do next. That could mean gradually allowing more people to return to the beach if the site remains quiet, or imposing stricter rules if problems persist.

Health Minister Christian Dubé on Thursday denounced the behaviour at the beach as "exactly what should not happen.''

He said that while he understand people want to socialize, he doesn't want to see beaches become outbreak sites.

"I don’t want the beach to be our next problem," he told a news conference in Montreal.

"And what we see in Oka, we’re not going in the right direction."

He reminded Quebecers that the province's plan to gradually reopen different sectors and activities over the coming weeks is contingent on people respecting health orders.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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