MONTREAL — Quebec will reopen gyms across all pandemic-alert zones March 26, in what the minister responsible for sports says is the first part of a gradual reopening of sports and recreation in the province.
"It's a first step, but it's a big first step," Isabelle Charest told reporters Friday in Montreal.
In COVID-19 "red zones," currently home to more than half Quebec's population, residents will be allowed to exercise in indoor facilities alone, with members of their households or with one other person. Gyms have been closed in red zones, such as the greater Montreal area, since Oct. 1. They reopened in Quebec City and four other regions March 8.
In red zones, non-contact organized sports practices will be allowed to resume outdoors, with a limit of eight participants. Under "orange zone" regulations, which apply across most of the province outside Montreal and its surrounding regions, non-contact indoor sports practices will be allowed to resume with up to eight people, while 12 people will be allowed to participate in non-contact outdoor practices.
Matches, however, will not be permitted.
"I think practising hockey is playing hockey — of course it's not a game, but the abilities and capacities you can develop by practising are an asset," Charest said. "There's so much you can do outside of having a game or an actual match that is beneficial for the athletes."
If things go well, Charest said, further sporting activities could be allowed soon.
"We have to be very careful," Dr. Richard Masse, senior public health official, told reporters Friday. But with the number of COVID-19 cases in the province on the decline for eight weeks, he said he thinks it's safe to allow some sporting activities to resume despite concerns about coronavirus variants, particularly in red zones.
"We think that at this time, we can reopen and see how it goes and if it goes well, then we might reopen more in the next few weeks," he said. Measures will be put in place to reduce transmission, and gyms will be required to keep records about users to enable contact tracing, he added.
"There had been outbreaks in gyms last fall, most of them were well controlled, but at the same time, we want to be sure that we have all the means to be able to intervene if needed," Masse said.
Charest said that with vaccination efforts underway, the provincial government is increasingly optimistic Quebecers will be able to resume a more normal life in the coming months.
Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx announced Friday that spas will be allowed to reopen March 15 in orange zones and March 26 in red zones. They had been permitted to offer esthetic treatments and massages, but the new rules will allow them to give customers access to baths and saunas.
Also in red zones on March 26, hotel pools will be allowed to reopen and places of worship will have their maximum capacity increased from 10 to 25 people.
Earlier in the day, Quebec opened vaccination appointments to Montreal residents as young as 65. The city became the first region in the province to extend inoculations to that age bracket, and the Health Department announced that thousands of appointments were available for the next three days.
Premier Francois Legault has said his hope is that once those over 65 are vaccinated, more health restrictions could be relaxed, including a ban on indoor private gatherings.
Quebec has administered more than 648,000 vaccine doses so far — representing about 7.6 per cent of the population — after vaccinating 28,910 people on Thursday. On Wednesday, the province opened vaccination appointments for those 70 and older for the entire province.
Quebec expects to receive around seven million doses of vaccine by the end of June. If that happens, the province would be able to give between 60 and 75 per cent of the population a first dose of vaccine, Masse said.
"That's very significant," he said. "This summer we could have close, close, to normal activities."
Quebec reported 753 new COVID-19 cases Friday and nine more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including three in the previous 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 13, to 550, and 106 people were in intensive care, a drop of five. The province has 7,134 active cases.
Montreal has reported at least one confirmed case of each of the three more contagious COVID-19 variants. Most of the cases in the city involve the B.1.1.7 mutation first detected in the United Kingdom. Quebec has reported 343 confirmed variant cases and 1,847 presumptive cases.
The province has reported a total of 296,143 COVID-19 infections, 278,489 recoveries and 10,526 deaths.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.
— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press