Quebecers who flout rules requiring face coverings in indoor public spaces will be subject to a fine beginning on Saturday, Premier Francois Legault announced Thursday.
Legault said the vast majority of Quebecers have followed COVID-19 public health guidelines since the beginning of the pandemic.
But he said the provincewide sanctions are needed because some aren't respecting the rules, endangering the elderly and the health network.
"We cannot accept that a few irresponsible people put all Quebec at risk," Legault told a news conference in Quebec City. "It's time to penalize them."
Legault said the dollar amount of the fines has not been decided and will be announced in the coming days by the province's public security minister following a special cabinet meeting.
Face coverings have been mandatory on public transit and in indoor public spaces across the province since July, but enforcement was initially left largely with business owners.
Businesses were subject to fines of between $400 and $6,000 if their customers were caught violating the directive.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said its members are pleased the responsibility will now be shared. They had urged the province to fine customers who refuse to wear a mask instead of putting the onus on business owners.
The premier said the tightening of the rules will focus first on so-called yellow zones — currently four regions outside of Montreal that have recently seen an increase in COVID cases.
Quebec introduced a four-level, colour-coded COVID-19 alert system Tuesday — green for vigilance, yellow for an early warning, orange for moderate alert and red for maximum alert.
Provincial authorities have pointed to private gatherings as the greatest source of recent infections.
In the Lower St-Lawrence region, officials say several back-to-class parties, including one on Aug. 30 attended by more than 100 young people in La Pocatiere, Que., are behind a wave of cases in the area that had largely been spared until now.
Dr. Sylvain Leduc, the regional health director, told reporters on Thursday there were several other parties as students returned to school, and there has already been secondary transmission stemming from those cases.
"It's worrisome because the young people who partied together visited local businesses, work in multiple business, in some cases on farms," Leduc said. "In many cases, they took the long weekend to visit with their families in the Lower St-Lawrence or elsewhere in Quebec."
The junior college in La Pocatiere and the agri-food technology institute are closed until Sept. 24 as a result of the outbreak, and Leduc is urging those who attended the gatherings to get screened.
The province reported 188 new COVID-19 cases Thursday as well as two more deaths linked to the virus.
Quebec has now had 64,244 confirmed cases and 5,773 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Health officials say 56,624 people are considered recovered.
The province also reported six more people have been hospitalized with COVID-19, bring the total to 119, while the number of patients in intensive care decreased by two to 12.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2020.
— By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.
The Canadian Press