MONTREAL — Quebec's public security minister rejected calls on Wednesday from opposition parties to set up police checkpoints limiting travel between regions when some COVID-19 health orders are relaxed next week.
Instead, Genevieve Guilbault said the government is relying on the honour system to discourage Quebecers located in red pandemic-alert zones — where 90 per cent of the population lives — to visit the six, less-populated regions that will be reopened considerably next Monday.
Public health hasn't recommended the regions be closed off, she said, adding that police already have their hands full keeping tabs on returning travellers in quarantine and monitoring whether people are following the provincewide nighttime curfew.
"We have to rely on the good faith of Quebecers and we have from the very beginning of the pandemic," Guilbault told reporters. "We have 15,000 police officers in Quebec and more than eight million people in Quebec, so it's not realistic to think every person can be under surveillance 24/7."
Non-essential stores, museums and personal-care salons will reopen Monday in big cities such as Montreal and Quebec City, but restaurants, gyms and other entertainment venues will stay closed — unlike in the six regions.
The Gaspe peninsula, the Saguenay area north of Quebec City and four other regions will move into the lower, orange pandemic-alert level on Monday. Along with the reopening of non-essential stores and personal-care salons, residents in those areas will be able to eat inside restaurants, work out at gyms and by the end of the month, watch movies in theatres.
The provincewide curfew imposed Jan. 9 will be pushed back in the six regions to 9:30 p.m., while Quebecers living everywhere else will continue to be forced to stay indoors after 8 p.m.
The Opposition Liberals said Wednesday that residents from red zones should be blocked from visiting orange zones to eat at restaurants or to watch movies in cinemas. "If you're serious about controlling the different regions, you want to make sure that there are some restrictions going from one region to the next," Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade told reporters.
One infectious disease expert says Quebec moved too soon to reopen and should have focused on getting cases down to a manageable level where robust contract tracing can take place. Dr. Matthew Oughton from Montreal's Jewish General Hospital said with COVID variants cropping up across Canada and a reduction in vaccine shipments, now is the time to play the long game.
“We have our fingers around the throat of the virus, this is not where you relax your grip, this is where you squeeze harder and try to get it under strict control.” Oughton said.
Infections and hospitalizations have steadily decreased for the past several weeks and Oughton attributes those drops to the closure of non-essential businesses and schools around Christmas and into early January.
“I’m firmly of the belief that the best overall strategy to deal with the virus … is to do a period of very strict, severe control to get cases down to a level when public health can quickly do contact tracing on every single new case," Oughton said.
Parti Quebecois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon called on provincial police to fine those who travel from red zones to the six regions without a valid reason, and he asked the Legault government to ban people in big cities from renting chalets in orange zones.
And despite the relaxation of restrictions, residents of Quebec's regions say they are frustrated that they are still subject to strict health orders when infections in their areas are low to non-existent, Joel Arseneau, PQ member representing Iles-de-la-Madeleine, told reporters.
"Where I'm from, on the Magdalen Islands, there were no cases before, no cases during and no cases after," Arseneau said, about the holiday season. "So, they say, basically: 'How many cases below the zero line will we need to have to get a little more freedom?'"
Quebec reported 1,053 new COVID-19 infections Wednesday and 37 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including nine in the previous 24 hours. Hospitalizations dropped by four, to 1,106, and 177 people were in intensive care, a drop of one. The province currently has 12,988 active reported COVID cases.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press