As the Eastern Townships move into red, the mood is resignation rather than surprise

·4 min read

The picnic tables on the patio at Brasserie Dunham were all empty this week, but not because of anything the public health department asked its owners to do.

"We had already told everyone we were closing three days this week to work on some renovations," said Simon Gaudreault, one of the brewery's co-owners. "If we'd known what was coming, we would have waited until Thursday and taken the extra couple of days of business."

What is coming in Dunham and everywhere else in the Eastern Townships is the colour red, as in Quebec's highest COVID-19 alert status.

The news wasn't entirely unexpected, given the region is surrounded by jurisdictions that have been in the red for as long as six weeks.

As car mechanic Michel Pagé, who runs a repair garage in nearby Cowansville, put it: "it was really just a question of time. We've had it better than a lot of other places."

Under red zone measures:

  • Bars and restaurant dining room must close.

  • Gatherings are banned for those who aren't from the same household, even outdoors. An exception is made for people living alone, who will be permitted one regular visitor from a different address.

  • Cinemas, theatres, museums and libraries (other than school libraries) must close.

  • Gyms, arenas and sports clubs must close.

  • High school students must wear masks and some extracurricular activities are banned.

The reversal of fortune for the region, which has largely been able to quickly stamp out its COVID-19 outbreaks since the spring, still feels sudden to Gaudreault.

Like every other restaurateur in Quebec, he's already been through this once and it isn't any more fun a second time around. The toughest part is the unpredictability.

"It's hard to come up with a game plan when you don't know when this is going to end," he said.

Most restrictions come into effect as of midnight Wednesday.

Public health remains optimistic

Dr. Alain Poirier, the public health director for the CIUSSS de l'Estrie - CHUS, is hopeful the shift to red may not be a long-term thing.

"We succeeded previously.… We have the collaboration of an army of good people in the health system and an army of people of good will in the municipalities and community organizations," Poirier told CBC's Quebec AM.

"Just reducing, each of us just a few contacts a day, just doing that will reverse … the situation in the Townships."

Looking at the numbers, the region shouldn't be the quite the same hue of scarlet as other recent members of the red zone club like, say, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean or Lanaudière.

The Townships' rate of 106.9 active cases per 100,000 inhabitants is the lowest of any red region (and almost three times lower than Saguenay's).

The region's hospitals, Poirier said, "are not problematic" although there are ongoing outbreaks at institutions in Granby, Sherbrooke, Asbestos and Cowansville.

The main issue is the short-term rise in cases, coupled with a large proportion of stubborn outbreaks in workplaces (18 of the 52 total outbreaks in the region), and growing indications of incipient community spread.

Poirier said that whereas community screening was yielding two or three per cent positivity rates in August, it's now "six, seven, eight per cent of people we were screening who were positive."

Is inter-regional tourism to blame?

There are also recent indications that some people simply aren't taking the pandemic seriously enough. This past Saturday, police were called to a Sherbrooke watering hole that was packed with 200 people who were neither wearing masks nor social distancing. The bar was the source of an outbreak in September.

The previous night, police broke up a house party of more than 25 people. Several attendees were from out of town, Radio-Canada reported.

Granby Mayor Pascal Bonin proposes a related theory as to what's changed: the unseasonably warm autumn weather has attracted visitors to places where restaurants and bars are open despite official recommendations against movement between regions.

"Police cannot do much and frankly business owners have had a very difficult year," he said. "So who can blame them for taking the money when it comes, and who can blame the Montrealers and people from the region for coming to our place … to take their minds off COVID."

John Sebastien Nais/Radio-Canada
John Sebastien Nais/Radio-Canada

Bonin's conclusion is based on anecdotal reports from the business community and his own observations.

By way of more empirical evidence, he offered this: the Estriade bike path generally attracts 350,000 to 400,000 riders in any given year, but when the books are closed on the 2020 cycling season the number will top one million.

The CIUSSS said in an emailed response that "public health data do not show that the transmission comes from other regions."

In any case, the region's turning red and some people seem determined to enjoy themselves before it happens.

In downtown Sherbrooke, the deck of Siboire, a local brewpub, was packed with (socially-distanced) people on Tuesday evening.

Asked if they were concerned by one final rush to businesses that will soon close to halt the virus's spread, a CIUSSS spokesperson said the public health department has faith that "necessary sanitary measures will be applied."