Quebec's much-maligned second curfew of the pandemic is coming to an end Monday, said Premier François Legault as he joined key cabinet ministers to announce a relaxing of some COVID-19 measures Thursday afternoon.
Legault addressed Quebecers in a news conference Thursday afternoon, alongside Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, Health Minister Christian Dubé and interim Public Health Director Luc Boileau.
He also announced schools will be reopening to in-person learning Monday, with all students wearing masks indoors. Students and educators who test positive or are in close contact with someone with COVID-19 are being asked to isolate themselves for five days.
WATCH | Legault says projections improving enough to end curfew, reopen schools:
Several CEGEPs and universities have already announced that they plan to reopen later this month.
Stores in the province, ordered to close on Sundays for the past two weeks, will be allowed to reopen on Sundays as of next week.
Legault said the province has brokered a deal with a Quebec company to purchase 70 million rapid tests for at-home use by Quebecers. Those tests will be distributed gradually over the coming weeks and months. Students will receive tests in the days following their return to classes, as well.
The premier said he hoped to reopen restaurants and concert venues shortly to those who are adequately vaccinated.
"We have good news today. Experts tell us the new cases have peaked, and the wave of hospitalizations is expected to peak in the coming days," Legault said.
"We have to remain careful. Hospitalizations are still high and could continue to increase."
Vaccine passports at more stores
The government has also decided as of Jan. 24, that customers will be required to show their vaccine passports to shop at big-box stores of 1,500 square metres or more, with the exception of grocery stores and pharmacies, which are considered essential services.
The 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew began almost exactly two weeks ago, garnering criticism as Legault provided little evidence that curfews are effective at slowing transmission of the virus.
The announcement of the latest measures come on the same day that Quebec's public health research institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), released its latest pandemic projections, which predicted a reduction in hospitalizations by the end of the month, and that new hospital admissions would peak sometime next week.
However, in a Twitter post, L'Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS), the government agency that develops tools to evaluate the clinical and organizational performance of the health-care system, declined to make any projections right now, "given the uncertainty of the data."
Boileau, who headed INESSS until earlier this week, agreed "there is obviously still some uncertainty around the evolution of the pandemic," but he said that hospitalization data has started to show the beginnings of a plateau.
"It's still increasing, but not an increase that's as strong as in recent weeks," he said.
As for the impact of a return to school on COVID-19 transmission, Boileau said rather than schools driving the spread of COVID, the case count in schools is more a reflection of the level of spread in the community.
"But we'll be very careful," he said.
In December, the majority of COVID-19 outbreaks were in elementary schools and factories.
Legault and Boileau said experts now have a better understanding of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which caused the highest spike in hospitalizations in the province since the start of the pandemic, even though health officials have said it usually produces a less severe form of the disease.
Premier defends proposed tax on unvaccinated
Legault last addressed the province on Tuesday, when he named Boileau to the post of interim public health director.
Dr. Horacio Arruda, who held the position for nearly 12 years, tendered his resignation Monday evening.
Arruda had been criticized for supporting Legault's move in early December to allow indoor gatherings of up to 20 people over the holidays, as well as for offering little evidence to back a return to an overnight curfew, announced the day before New Year's Eve.
He also came under fire at the end of December for saying N95 masks were not as efficient as surgical masks if worn improperly. On Thursday, Boileau said that Public Health had determined teachers do not require N95 masks.
The government is not backing down from a plan announced Tuesday to charge unvaccinated Quebecers a "health contribution" — an amount the premier said might be levied when citizens file their income tax.
Nearly 13 per cent of Quebecers over the age of five have not yet received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and they represent about 46 per cent of new intensive care admissions, according to the Quebec Ministry of Health.
Legal and ethics experts question whether such punitive measures are the right way to persuade people to get immunized.
Legault defended the proposed tax Thursday, saying it would be "an incentive to protect [the unvaccinated] from themselves."
CAQ popularity waning
Despite some recent missteps in his government's pandemic response, Legault remains one of the Canadian premiers with the most popular support — though recent data collected by the polling aggregation website Qc125.com show support for his party, Coalition Avenir Québec, may have declined in recent weeks.
About 43 per cent of those surveyed said they support the CAQ, compared to 47.4 per cent in early December.
Thursday, Legault said he wasn't aware of the polls when he made the decision to end the curfew.
"What we're trying to do right now is not respond to polls, but to the real situation," he said.
"I'm not here to win a popularity contest; I'm here to protect Quebecers."