The Quebec government will lift its limit on large public gatherings next month, even though the province is currently experiencing an increase in new cases of COVID-19.
The maximum number of people who can attend indoor or outdoor events in public venues will increase from 50 to 250 on Aug. 3, officials announced Thursday afternoon.
In a news release, the government said the change was recommended by public health authorities, and that the established rules for physical distancing and hygiene will remain in effect.
"We took into account the experience of the last few weeks, when the limit was set at 50 people, and we noted in particular that the operators were diligent in implementing the various measures necessary to ensure the safety of workers and the public," Dr. Richard Massé, a medical adviser to Quebec's public health department, said in the release.
But since the start of the month, the rolling average of new cases has been on the rise. CBC Montreal calculated the five-day average of new cases was at 70 on July 1. It stood at 156 on Thursday.
The increase has largely been concentrated in the Montreal area, and among people aged 18-40, according to public health officials.
Contact tracing has indicated that the biggest group of new cases is tied to family gatherings and private events that exceeded the 10-person maximum allowed under current public-health guidelines.
'I don't see the logic,' expert says
The government announcing an easing of restrictions amid a resurgence of cases puzzles one of Montreal's leading infectious disease specialists.
"I don't understand where this announcement came from," said Dr. Cécile Tremblay, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist with the Université de Montréal hospital network.
"We're in a period where you would want to be the most cautious possible, because since cases bottomed out we've seen them increase again gradually."
In an interview with Radio-Canada, Tremblay said she was worried it sent a confusing message to the public, asking them on the one hand to limit the size of private gathering, and on the other giving the OK to large public ones.
"I don't see the logic," she added. "I don't see why it was necessary to do this now."
Masks may be taken off while seated
The change to indoor gatherings affects theatres, cinemas and other performance spaces, indoor amateur sports training and events, houses of worship, courtrooms and rented halls.
At such gatherings, two metres of distance must be maintained between people while standing and 1.5 metres when seated. Masks must be worn when circulating inside a venue, but as in bars, they can be taken off once seated.
Vincenzo Guzzo, president of Cinema Guzzo, said the change sends a message that movie theatres are safe, provided there's a two-seat space between people in the audience.
Quebec allowed indoor event venues to reopen on June 22, with a maximum capacity of 50 people. Since then, Guzzo said, said his cinemas have been doing about 25 per cent of the business they would do in an average pre-pandemic week.
The limit of 250 people will also apply to outdoor public events. Masks must be worn when two metres of physical distance cannot be observed.
The release says that festivals and major events remain prohibited until Aug. 31, "due to the significant risk of contagion and transmission of the virus."
Bars and restaurants are not affected the change.