Chinese New Year celebrations to kick off in Montreal despite coronavirus worries

As revellers get ready to celebrate the Chinese New Year in downtown Montreal, participants can expect to see a couple of new additions to the colourful displays: hand sanitizers and face masks.

Everybody — as long as they're feeling healthy — is welcomed by organizers to show up at the Complexe Desjardins to enjoy a range of professional performances and activities rooted in Chinese culture.

But anybody who is feeling even slightly under the weather is encouraged to stay home and wait for the video to be posted online.

The extra caution is in response to concerns about the coronavirus — a potentially fatal flu-like virus that originated in China and is now surfacing in countries around the world. Yet Montrealers have little to worry about so far, health authorities say.

"There are no new cases of coronavirus at the moment in Quebec, nor in Canada," said Horacio Arruda, Quebec's director of public health, Friday.

He has been working to reassure the population, telling the public that the province is well prepared to detect, treat and contain the virus should it find its way here.

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Airports are taking extra measures, and health professionals across Quebec are well-equipped, he said.

The screening protocols have already put six people who arrived in Quebec from China in hospital. They were subsequently under observation in Quebec City and Montreal, but they have all tested negative for the disease which can cause a fever, cough and respiratory distress.

Arruda urged the population to not give in to any irrational or unfounded fear as stories of China's struggle to contain the virus make international headlines.

However, the province isn't letting its guard down, he said, and people should not be surprised to see more people under medical surveillance.

Community on edge

In Brossard, on Montreal's South Shore, Sino-Quebec, a group that helps more than 3,000 new Chinese immigrants a year integrate into Quebec society, has changed its office policy.

The group usually helps people in person, but director Xixi Li said they're asking newcomers not to show up right away.

"If you just arrived from China, you should stay at home for two weeks before you go to a public space or come to our centre for service," she said.

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Some Chinese New Year celebrations have been cancelled in the region because the community is on edge, Li said. She said her organization has been in touch with health authorities, hoping to better understand the situation.      The community is "afraid because we know what happened during the SARS period," she said.

"And they're afraid that they will have this disease, there's no treatment and people will die suddenly."

Nothing to fear, health officials say

However, Canadians have no need to worry about the prospect of mass quarantines, public health authorities said on Friday.

Health officials have been working with the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg to develop a quicker testing method, and the federal government has beefed up measures at major airports.


Quebec's public health directorate has set up a webpage outlining the disease, reminding the population that most people who do contract the coronavirus will recover on their own. 

"There's no reason for fear because sometimes the epidemic of fear is greater than what is going on,'' said Arruda.

Year of the rat

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As for the festivities planned for downtown Montreal, organizers say they don't expect the coronavirus to deter people from the celebrations. 

"The year of the rat is the first year of the zodiac," said Bing Pan, the secretary of the Montreal Chinese Chamber of Commerce, referring to the 12 animals that make up the cycle.

"The people who were born in this year, are very active, like sports. They run fast. And they are lucky. It's a good year."