Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and public health officials are once again recommending Quebecers wear masks in crowded public spaces.
The government said the measure is recommended for people of all ages, but it stopped short of making it mandatory in the province. The government is not extending its recommendation to schools and daycares, said Dubé.
The measure comes amid growing concern the health system is being overburdened by rising cases of respiratory illnesses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu and COVID-19.
Dr. Luc Boileau, the province's public health director, said the masking measure is aimed at curbing all three of those viruses, not just COVID-19.
"We have a spicy cocktail for the next couple of weeks, if not the next couple of months. So it's time to return to our good habits of prudence and vigilance," Boileau said.
"Living with the virus is now living with the viruses — it's not just the one," he asserted.
Premier François Legault insisted on Tuesday that there was "no question" of reinstating a mask mandate for public spaces. Boileau said public health didn't recommend making the measure mandatory, because the situation did not necessitate it.
"It's something that needs to be considered really delicately, because you put pressure on citizens with [those kinds of] measures. We're not at that point," he said.
Quebec lifted its mask mandate in indoor public spaces last May and in public transit last June.
Learning from the pandemic
Boileau is asking Quebecers to keep in mind what they learned during the COVID-19 pandemic when moving through public spaces.
"We know what puts us at risk. We know when we're in a crowd of people we don't know, or when we're in line to get into a store, or we go to the cinema ... we should wear the mask," he said.
"If I'm going to the dépanneur and I'm alone, it's not too bad if I don't wear a mask there. If I'm walking outside, it's not too bad," he added. "But when we're in large groups, it's more warranted."
Despite the highly transmissible BQ1.1 variant circulating widely in the province, Boileau said the COVID-19 situation is steadily improving in Quebec.
Dubé credited high vaccination rates and public co-operation with health measures, like masking, for flattening the curve.
"We succeeded in controlling it — and I say that knocking on wood," Dubé said, touching the table in front of him.
Both Dubé and Boileau underlined the importance of Quebecers being up to date with their COVID-19 vaccine doses, especially going into the holiday season.
"Do you want to have a nice big Christmas party? … Go right away and get vaccinated, to have the full effect of your COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks," Dubé said.
Officials are also asking those who can to get the flu vaccine. The vaccine is only free to those in at-risk groups, but must otherwise be paid for out of pocket.
When asked why the program wasn't being expanded to be free for everyone, Boileau said it wasn't recommended by Quebec's immunization committee, but said that could change if the situation warrants it.
In addition to masking, officials are also asking Quebecers to wash their hands frequently and isolate if they have symptoms of any virus.
Speaking to Radio-Canada Thursday morning, Dubé said there will be a publicity campaign to encourage Quebecers to don their masks again.