Quebec Premier Francois Legault is moving three cities, including the provincial capital, into lockdown Thursday following a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections.
Schools and non-essential businesses are to close and the curfew will move ahead to 8 p.m. from 9:30 p.m. in Quebec City, Levis and Gatineau for at least 10 days, Legault said in Quebec City Wednesday.
"We are very worried," Legault said, noting that the situation continues to deteriorate in the three cities. "Today and yesterday the cases are rising almost exponentially."
Health officials in the Quebec City area, for example, reported 111 new cases on Sunday. Within 48 hours that number jumped to 194.
Legault said the increase is being driven by new coronavirus variants and that his government expects hospitalizations to rise rapidly in the three cities in the near future.
"We're acting fast," Legault said, adding he didn't want to wait for hospitals to be overwhelmed.
"As soon as we see an important increase in the number of cases, we don't wait to see an increase in the number of hospitalizations. We make decisions."
All three cities had been in the orange zone, the second-highest level in Quebec's pandemic-alert system.
The premier also announced that four regions are moving from the orange to the red alert level: Quebec City; Outaouais, across the Ottawa River from Ontario; Chaudiere-Appalaches, south of the provincial capital; and Bas-St-Laurent, northeast of Quebec City.
Health Minister Christian Dube said Quebec was also talking with Ontario to limit "communication" between Gatineau and Ottawa but said he could not be more specific.
Last week, Legault said the province was "resisting" a third wave before changing his message Friday amid rising infections. Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, told reporters Wednesday, "The things I'm saying today can change tomorrow."
"There are wounds that we can treat with antibiotics," Arruda added. "But at a certain point, we have to amputate. We are there now with cases rising very quickly in Quebec City."
Legault said variants are causing the situation to change faster than expected.
"Last week, we didn't have those increases in those regions or cities," he said. "We didn't expect that it would be worse in Levis than in Montreal or Laval."
The new restrictions do not affect the Montreal area, where theatres are open and able to welcome up to 250 people and the curfew remains at 9:30 p.m.
Legault said he believes the rise in cases in the regions where stricter rules are being implemented is the result of people not following public health measures and gathering in homes. Some regions, such as Estrie, south of Montreal, were moved into the orange zone along with Quebec City several weeks ago and have not seen a dramatic rise in cases, he said.
"Some people, they think that because the curfew is at 9:30 (p.m.), that they can go and see other people in homes for an additional hour and a half, it's clear," Legault said. Most indoor private gatherings are banned across the province.
Simon Bacon, a professor in the department of health, kinesiology and applied physiology at Concordia University, said the government has been sending mixed messages.
Bacon, who is one of the lead researchers of an international study looking at adherence to behaviour-based policies aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, said it makes sense that when restrictions are eased, people will think the problem is less serious.
In an interview Wednesday before Legault's news conference, he said he doesn't believe the government has demonstrated that gatherings in homes have lead to the increase in transmission.
Bacon said the government, which ordered English school boards on Wednesday to stop allowing high school students to take classes part-time from home, has also been incoherent by banning indoor gatherings while encouraging in-person learning.
“You can't say it's OK to have kids in the classroom but can't have four people in a house," he said. "It's just inconsistent."
If people don't think the rules make sense, then they won't follow them, Bacon said.
Quebec reported 1,025 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and nine more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including three in the previous 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by two, to 485, and 120 people were in intensive care, a drop of six.
Earlier Wednesday, public health officials confirmed they had ordered a Quebec City gym to close after detecting 68 cases of COVID-19 that they say are linked to the facility.
Mathieu Boivin, a spokesman for the regional health authority in Quebec City, said officials inspected the Mega Fitness Gym on Tuesday and found "obvious gaps" in the measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including a lack of distancing between clients and insufficient personal protective equipment for staff.
Users of the gym are linked to at least eight other workplace outbreaks, he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.
— By Jacob Serebrin in Montreal
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version referred to case numbers as being reported Tuesday. They were reported Wednesday.