As Quebec City once again finds itself under lockdown amid an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases, many are pointing fingers at a 24-hour gym that has been linked to a huge outbreak.
The region reported 184 new cases on Wednesday, up 50 per cent from Tuesday and its highest total since early January, during the peak of the second wave.
Premier François Legault responded to the rise in cases by ordering schools and non-essential businesses in Quebec City and neighbouring Lévis to close for the next ten days. The curfew will also be brought forward to 8 p.m.
Legault described the new measures as a "wake-up call" for the area.
Officials in the region had been calling for stricter measures ahead of the surprise announcement by the provincial government.
Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume indicated earlier in the day he felt the ball had been dropped. "I believe Quebec City has become very dangerous," he said.
The Quebec government eased restrictions in the Quebec City area earlier this month. Gyms were among the facilities allowed to reopen.
But over the weekend, health authorities closed Mega Gym 24H, saying an outbreak there had led to nearly 70 new cases of COVID-19.
The cost of big biceps
The gym is owned by Dan Marino, a vocal opponent of public health measures. On Wednesday, Labeaume blasted the gym's management for taking a lax approach to safety after reopening.
"Bravo champion," he said in French, which roughly translates as "way to go champ."
"Everyone has nice biceps but now people are sick."
The gym reopened Monday, only to be ordered shut down again Tuesday, "until further notice."
A follow-up inspection had found several public health breaches, including not checking customers and workers for symptoms at the door, people working out within two metres of each other and inadequate protective measures for the staff.
And yet the gym was still open at 1 p.m. Wednesday, more than three hours after public health called, again, for an immediate shutdown. It wasn't until Quebec City police arrived that the shutdown order was enforced.
Leaving the gym Wednesday, one customer, Mario Bernard, said he was a little worried by the outbreak.
But he told Radio-Canada that he felt fine and didn't want to get tested, because he doesn't want to isolate for 14 days if his test comes back positive.
So far, there are 68 cases connected to the gym, and public health officials say outbreaks at eight workplaces in the region have been linked to it.
Another local gym owner told Radio-Canada the outbreak at Mega Gym 24H makes the entire industry look bad.
Gabriel Hardy, who owns the gym Le Chalet, said most places have been strictly following the health and safety guidelines for a year, and have shown they're willing to go above and beyond public health's standards.
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Time for a blanket approach?
Earlier on Wednesday, Quebec City Director of Public Health Dr. André Dontigny told Quebec AM that supplementary public health restrictions were needed.
Dontigny said that even though hospital capacity is under control now, the health-care system may not be able to cope with a sudden rise in patients.
"One thing that is sure at this moment, is that the epidemic is, in a certain way, out of control in the Capitale Nationale," he said.
"We need to amplify our measures, we need all the support of the collectivity because of this situation."
Dontigny had called for restrictions that went beyond those usually associated with the red-zone designation.
Other experts suggested it might be time for wall-to-wall heightened restrictions across the province.
"Going back to one single rule, or a set of rules that are really, really easy to understand and apply by everyone, that is an option," said Dr. François Marquis, the head of intensive care at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital in Montreal.
The disadvantage, he noted, is that blanket rules would have to be more strict. But with the potential for large gatherings over Easter weekend, there is cause for concern.
The outbreak at Mega Gym 24H, he said, shows how quickly things can get out of hand.