Quebec Premier François Legault says Quebec City, Lévis and Gatineau will be essentially shut down for 10 days starting Thursday at 8 p.m. ET to curb the "exponential" rise of COVID-19 cases in these three cities.
Schools will be closed, and students will move to full-time online learning in those three cities.
Gyms, theatres, hairdressers and other non-essential businesses are also shutting down in the three cities, Legault said on Wednesday. Religious gatherings will be limited to 25 people, and there will also be an 8 p.m.– 5 a.m. curfew until at least April 12.
"The situation is critical. It is deteriorating in these three cities," Legault said. "People have to remain at home unless they absolutely have to go to work."
With Easter weekend on the way, Legault stressed the importance of staying home and not gathering because COVID-19 variants are on the rise throughout Quebec.
More than half of the cases of COVID-19 recorded in the province will be linked to variants by the beginning of April, according to modelling by Quebec's public health institute. Public health officials have confirmed that a third wave is underway, and those who are unvaccinated in the 40 to 60 age range are at particularly high risk.
The variant first detected in the United Kingdom is the most prevalent in Quebec. Of the more than 7,400 cases linked to variants in the province, Montreal has the highest concentration, with about 3,000 so far. Quebec City is nearing 1,000 variant infections, and Outaouais is nearing 500.
"The alarm is sounding," Legault said. "We cannot make any exceptions."
Hospitalizations have not spiked in these three areas, he added, but they may soon.
"We must act quickly," Legault said. "Everywhere in Quebec, we have to be more careful."
Though schools will be closed, daycare services will be made available to those who work in essential services. Parents are expected to keep kids home if they can, and only use these services if they are leaving home to work.
WATCH | Legault explains the new lockdown measures:
Legault is also announcing that four regions are moving from orange to red, in accordance with the province's colour-coded alert system.
The Outaouais, Chaudière-Appalaches, Lower Saint-Lawrence and the Quebec City region will return to red zones.
Legault said it is time to crack down now and adjust as needed as more data is gathered. Montreal is not affected by the increased restrictions, but that may change as the situation evolves, he said.
Cities see spike in cases
Quebec City, Lévis and Gatineau have been orange zones for more than two weeks, allowing restaurants to welcome diners and gyms to open. But bars remained closed, and indoor gatherings were still prohibited, with guests allowed only under specific circumstances.
With restrictions loosened, cases jumped. In the Quebec City area, 194 more cases were recorded on Wednesday, for a total of 990 active cases there.
"When we go from 50 to 200 cases per day, we are going to have an impact on hospitalizations," Legault said.
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said there may be 250 cases reported Thursday and that's why the government can no longer wait. If hospitals fill up with COVID-19 patients, other medical services will have to be delayed, he said.
Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, said the variants are spreading fast, and it is likely because people are ignoring public health rules.
"We have to intervene," he said.
Travel to 3 cities only for essentials
Arruda said travel to Quebec City, Lévis and Gatineau will not be restricted, but it is "highly recommended" that people avoid these zones because there is such a high rate of transmission. People should only go there for essential reasons, he said.
Earlier in the day, Quebec City's public health director, Dr. André Dontigny, voiced his concern about the rise in cases and said the current measures weren't sufficient. A local gym linked to nearly 70 infections was shut down.
The gym's management sent out a notice to patrons late last week encouraging anybody who attended the facility since March 14 to get tested as they may have contracted what is suspected to be a COVID-19 variant.
Dubé said the rate at which the disease spread at the gym shows just how extremely contagious COVID-19 variants are when people gather indoors. He said this outbreak should serve as a reminder to those thinking about ignoring public health restrictions and gathering over the holiday weekend or in the weeks to come.
In the Ottawa-Gatineau region, the number of active cases surpassed 2,000 over the weekend as the situation in Ontario worsened.
Legault scaled back public health restrictions in all but the Montreal region on March 8.
Since then, the curfew has been eased — from 8 to 9:30 p.m. — in the Montreal area, gyms were allowed to open and a few other rules were relaxed in the metropolitan area.
Specialist says restrictions should be tightened
Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist in Montreal, said tightening the restrictions in some of the harder-hit areas in Quebec is going to send an important message to the residents there — showing them that they need to avoid gathering indoors and close contact with others so as to prevent transmission.
"One of the things that has to be clear is that we are not out of the woods, and we are back in dangerous territory," Kakkar said.
She suspects a false sense of security is spreading through the population as spring approaches, but, she said, people are forgetting that the pandemic is still very real.
Kakkar supports sending high school students back to school full time and says it is crucial because kids need social interaction for their mental health.
"As pediatricians, we weigh the risk of infection versus not being in school, and that risk of not being in school has just been so detrimental to so many teens that I think it's still worthwhile trying to keep kids in school," Kakkar said.
However, she said, facilities and businesses associated with elective activities, such as gyms and restaurants, should remain closed mainly because of the variants of the disease, which are proving to be more contagious and dangerous.