Quebec health minister confident Montreal will reopen at same time as other regions

·4 min read

MONTREAL — More than a week before Taverne Saint-Sacrement, on Montreal's Mount-Royal Avenue, is set to reopen, owner Pierre Thibault says he's already getting calls for reservations.

For Thibault, the COVID-19 reopening plan presented by Quebec Premier François Legault on Tuesday is "great news."

"We should be OK to have kind of a real summer this summer," he said in an interview Wednesday. "So, step by step, we're going to open."

The plan begins with lifting the curfew on May 28 and ends with the possible removal of the mask mandate in late August. It gradually allows bars and restaurants to reopen across the province, starting with restaurant patios on May 28.

"We think that it is a great plan," Martin Vézina, a spokesman for restaurant industry group Association Restauration Québec, said in an interview Wednesday. "We asked for predictability and with that plan, we have that kind of predictability."

Vézina said the advance notice will allow restaurants to buy food and hire staff.

While bar patios won't be allowed to open in most of the province until June 11, Thibault's bar has a restaurant licence and he expects to open his patio at the end of the month.

The reopening rules are strict, limiting the number of people from different households who can sit together and requiring bars to keep a log of customers.

But Dr. Leighanne Parkes, an infectious disease specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, said tying the reopening to specific dates could set Quebecers up for disappointment if things don't go as planned.

"Let's say we hit June 11 and we're at 1,000 cases per day, are we still going to move ahead with the June 11 plan?" she asked. "What I would have appreciated was more of a measured approach that took into consideration epidemiological parameters when implementing the next phase."

There are elements of the plan that make sense, she said, such as the focus on reopening outdoor settings first. People are already gathering outside and the risks are low, especially if people are distanced or wearing a mask, she added.

But she said she wants more details about an element of the plan that will allow up to 2,500 people to gather in large venues, including theatres and arenas.

"Are they allowed to chant? Are they allowed to take off their masks? Are they allowed to eat? What activities could expose others to their secretions?" she said. "That makes me worried about potential superspreading events."

There are still outbreaks occurring in long-term care settings in Quebec, she said. "So, it's very tough to not worry about the consequences of mass public reopening," she said.

Vézina and Thibault both said they're confident the reopening plan will stick and businesses won't be forced to close again. "I think that's why they are so strict during this step-by-step plan for reopening," Thibault said.

Legault said Tuesday that by May 31, the "vast majority" of Quebec will be moved to the orange pandemic-alert level, under which restaurants can fully reopen. Legault, however, didn't say what regions will be moved to orange.

Speaking to reporters in Montreal on Wednesday morning, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said he's confident Montreal will reopen at the same time as the rest of the province.

The city has been in Quebec's red zone since the colour-coded alert level system was introduced in late September. "We could always have surprises," Dubé said, but if current trends continue, "we will have very good news at the end of May."

Dubé made the comments as he announced that Quebecers can get vaccinated at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve racetrack, which hosts the F1 Canadian Grand Prix and is popular with cyclists. The vaccination site at the track will be open to cyclists and for drive-thru vaccinations on separate weekends in May and June.

Earlier Wednesday, Quebec reported 584 new cases of COVID-19 and eight more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one within the past 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 18, to 466, and 113 people were in intensive care, a drop of five.

Officials said 71,485 doses of vaccine were administered Tuesday, for a total of 4,543,365, and about 50.5 per cent of Quebecers have received at least one dose of vaccine.

On Thursday, the province is scheduled to announce a vaccination plan for people aged 12 to 17.

Dubé said that with increased supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as well as the reliability of deliveries, he expects the province will be able to give people a second dose sooner than scheduled.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 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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