Quebec asks universities and colleges to reopen this fall without physical distancing

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MONTREAL — Quebec universities and junior colleges should prepare for in-person classes this fall without the requirement of physical distancing, Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann said Monday.

The new directive will only apply, McCann told reporters, if at least 75 per cent of Quebecers between the ages of 16 and 29 are fully vaccinated and if the epidemiological situation is stable.

"In my view, this is a wonderful challenge for our young people, for our society," she said in Montreal, adding that the full reopening of universities and colleges depends on the willingness of young people to be vaccinated.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's public health director, said if vaccination rates are lower than 75 per cent, there will be too many young people at school vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. While they are less likely than senior citizens to die from the virus, young people are still at risk of developing chronic lung problems, Arruda told reporters.

Some health orders — such as mask wearing — may remain by the fall, McCann said, adding that extracurricular activities and sports at colleges and universities will remain subject to the same restrictions as elsewhere in the province.

Schools are also being asked to develop backup plans in case the vaccination target is not reached or the epidemiological situation changes, McCann said. But by the fall, post-secondary education will be offered in person as much as possible and students should find a place to live in the cities where their schools are located, she added.

McCann said she met with representatives from the province's educational institutions on Monday and they are prepared to fully reopen. "The will is there," she said.

Earlier on Monday, Health Minister Christian Dubé reminded Quebecers that the province's reopening plan is "conditional," following reports over the weekend of large gatherings in parks and crowded restaurant patios.

"We understand that people, and not only young people, all the population, were anxious to get those measures out of the way," Dubé told reporters in Montreal, a few days after his government lifted the curfew and permitted private outdoor gatherings and restaurant patio dining.

"This deconfinement plan is conditional on respecting the measures and having a high percentage of the people being vaccinated," he said, adding that he recognized the large, problematic gatherings reported in Montreal and Quebec City were "exceptional" and a majority of people followed the rules.

Restrictions across several Quebec regions were further eased on Monday. Five regions, including Quebec City, moved from red to the orange pandemic-alert level, under which gyms and indoor restaurant dining can reopen. In the Chaudière-Appalaches, Estrie and Bas-St-Laurent regions, several municipalities remained at the red alert level while the rest of the regions moved on Monday to orange.

Montreal and its northern suburb Laval remain red zones, although Premier François Legault has said he expected those two areas to move to orange on June 7.

Richard Zaroukian, who owns the Quartier Révolution gym in Brossard, Que., on Montreal's south shore, said it felt good to open on Monday after his business had been closed for the majority of 2021.

"You can see people's demeanour, you could see their energy as they walk in and everyone had a smiley face walking in," he said. "The vibe is super positive, people are just happy to be back, they want to get back in shape."

Zaroukian said his gym had been closed since October, except for a 12-day period at the end of March and beginning of April when gyms were briefly allowed to reopen.

It hasn't been easy, he said, adding that his businesses has been able to stay alive because sales had risen in the months before the pandemic. While he said he has received government financial support to help pay rent, that money doesn't cover other costs, such as electricity.

The relaxed restrictions came as Quebec reported fewer than 300 new COVID-19 cases for the first time since mid-September.

Health officials reported 276 new infections and one more death attributed to the novel coronavirus. They said hospitalizations dropped by two, to 362, and 89 people were in intensive care, a drop of one. The last time the province reported fewer than 300 daily cases was on Sept. 17, with 297 new cases.

Authorities said 77,495 doses of vaccine were administered Sunday, for a total of 5,583,075; about 60.8 per cent of Quebecers have received at least one dose of vaccine.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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