Quebec halts everything but essential services as community transmission of COVID-19 detected

Quebec halts everything but essential services as community transmission of COVID-19 detected
  • Residents of seniors' long-term care homes will not be allowed to leave their residences.
  • There are 628 confirmed cases of the virus in Quebec; 45 people are in hospital; 20 are in intensive care. Four people have died. Quebec has 6,000 hospital beds ready to treat COVID-19 patients.
  • The province announced new containment measures over the weekend, including banning both indoor and outdoor gatherings.
  • A new outdoor COVID-19 testing site is open in Montreal. 
  • Montreal parking restrictions for street cleaning have been pushed back to May 1. 
  • Call 1-877-644-4545 if you think you have COVID-19 symptoms, instead of 811.

Quebec is shutting down all non-essential economic activity in the province, after public health officials determined the novel coronavirus is spreading more widely than before. 

Premier François Legault said Monday the province will be "on pause" for at least three weeks, until April 13, although grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and SAQ outlets will remain open. 

The decision was made, Legault said, because Quebec had reached the community transmission phase of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Up to this point, the vast majority of confirmed cases in Quebec were linked to people who had travelled abroad.

But there are now 628 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province, an increase of more than 400 from Sunday. Of those cases, 45 people have been hospitalized, 20 of whom are in intensive care.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

"We can see today an important increase in the number of cases, so it's time for everybody to follow the public health instructions," Legault said at his daily news conference in Quebec City.

"It's time also for the government to act in a decisive manner. We must put Quebec on pause until Easter."

Confusion, long lines greet announcement 

Legault said the shutdown will go into effect Tuesday at midnight, but he urged stores and businesses to close as soon as possible.

People will be able to work from home if they are able, he said.

However, construction sites — there are around 250,000 construction workers in the province — and most factories are covered by the order.

"There has to be the least amount of [physical] contact possible," Legault said. He noted there is federal and provincial funding available for workers who won't be paid.

The announcement was welcomed by the largest federation of construction unions in the province. "We are happy and support, without reservation, the premier's decision," said a spokesperson for FTQ-Construction.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

But business owners and consumers around the province were thrown into a state of confusion immediately after Legault's announcement, which initially wasn't accompanied by a detailed list of what is considered an essential service.

Long lines formed outside several grocery stores, as well as at outlets of the provincially run liquor commission (SAQ) and marijuana dispensaries (SQDC).

By early evening the government had released an extensive list of services that will be allowed to remain open. They include:

  • Grocery stores, gas stations, dépanneurs, as well SAQ and SQDC outlets. Restaurant delivery remains available.
  • Public transit, airports and taxis.
  • Banks and most other financial services.
  • Heavy industry, including aluminum smelters and mines, will be allowed to maintain basic operations on site.

Increase explained

The huge increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Quebec was attributed to a number of factors, but primarily to the fact that the province has stopped distinguishing between confirmed and probable cases.

Legault also said Quebec had, until now, limited testing to people who had travelled abroad or those who had symptoms of the disease.

Now that the outbreak has reached the community transmission phase in Quebec, the province will test more widely.

A walk-in testing facility opened Monday in Montreal. Set up in a tent at the Place des Festivals on Jeanne-Mance Street below De Maisonneuve Boulevard, the makeshift clinic will increase the city's testing capability to between 2,000 and 2,500 people per day, the regional health authority said.

Legault said Quebec has enough cotton-tipped swabs to sustain increased testing for another several weeks but said he will speak with the federal government about securing long-term supply.

The province is, otherwise, well-positioned to confront the outbreak, Legault said. Hospitals have enough surgical masks and ventilators, and 570 intensive-care beds are ready to treat the most severe cases.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

Nevertheless, the premier imposed further restrictions aimed at those most at risk of developing complications from the virus.

Other the weekend, as the death toll in Quebec went from one to four, public health officials revealed that several of the cases were traced to the same seniors' residence in the small town of Lavaltrie, about 50 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

Under a new order announced Monday, residents of long-term care institutions must remain indoors, unless they are accompanied by someone else or in the event of an emergency.

"It's a tough measure, but it's necessary because the last thing we want in Quebec is for the virus to enter a seniors' residence," Legault said.

"That's what could bring about the most disastrous effects."

Police enforcing ban on gatherings

The widespread closures announced Monday came following the weekend announcement that the government was banning most public and private gatherings, which it can do under the emergency powers contained in the Public Health Act. 

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Police in Montreal and Quebec City said they have received dozens of calls from the public to disperse crowds of various sizes.

Montreal police invoked emergency measures on Monday, allowing the police service to deploy more officers to enforce the ban.

Civil liberty groups said that while they support the wide-ranging ban on gatherings, they will continue to monitor police behaviour and provide support to people who believe they have been treated unfairly.

The union representing SPVM officers, meanwhile, said Monday that two of its members have tested positive for the virus. 

A McGill University student recovering from COVID-19 describes her experience: