Quebec premier offers 'moral contract' for Christmas; lockdown order extended

·4 min read

MONTREAL — Premier Francois Legault on Thursday offered Quebecers a "moral contract" for the Christmas holidays while extending lockdown orders across most of the province until Jan. 11.

Gatherings up to 10 people will be allowed between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27, but Quebecers are being asked to isolate for one week before Christmas and one week after, Legault told reporters in Montreal.

"I want to offer a moral contract for the holiday season," he said. "We will permit gatherings for four days."

He asked employers to be flexible around the holiday period and allow employees time to isolate — either through remote work or by reducing business activities. The premier said his proposed contract won't apply to New Year's Eve. Health Minister Christian Dube encouraged Quebecers to stay home on New Year's Eve and "try to forget 2020."

The premier also announced an extension of the school winter break. Primary schools will close a few days early, on Dec. 17, and reopen in January at their previously scheduled dates. Secondary schools will close Dec. 17 and reopen one week later than scheduled, on Jan. 11.

"These aren't vacations," Legault said. "Work will be sent to students, and teachers will be in contact daily, either by phone or through video conference." Schools for special needs children will not have their winter breaks extended, he added.

Teachers unions and parents groups had called for schools not to be closed for an extended period. In a joint statement, Quebec's three largest union federations said they were pleased with the announcement, describing it as "responsible."

And while he brought good news about holiday gatherings, Legault had bad news for business owners. The partial lockdown measures — which have been in place in so-called red zones including Montreal and Quebec City since Oct. 1 — will remain until at least Jan 11.

"There are just too many cases," Legault said.

Gatherings aren't limited to specific families or friends, Legault explained, meaning a person who lives alone can gather with up to nine different people every day for four days without breaking the rules.

Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, told reporters that just because people will be allowed to meet for four consecutive days doesn't mean it's recommended they do. He encouraged people to gather as little as possible and warned that the increased contact during the holiday season will have an impact on COVID-19 transmission.

Benoit Masse, a professor of public health at the Universite de Montreal, said he was surprised Legault decided to announce new rules more than four weeks before Christmas — especially with the number of COVID-related hospitalizations on the rise, he said.

“There’s so much that’s unpredictable,” Masse said in an interview Thursday. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past month, he said. What happens after the holidays, he added, remains a “big unknown.”

“It all depends on if people are going to follow the rules,” he said, adding that lengthy dinners indoors are high risk. Masse said it would have made sense to close schools after the holiday to prevent further transmission.

Arruda said the government's plan could change based on a "epidemiological analysis" that will consider hospital capacity over the coming weeks.

Legault admitted that his so-called "moral contract" is geared toward people who celebrate Christmas. Jews wanting to celebrate Hanukkah — which starts this year on Dec. 10 — and others who don't celebrate the birth of Jesus are out of luck, Legault implied.

"We think that in Quebec, most people will be happy with those four days," Legault said. The rules will apply across the province.

Quebec reported 1,207 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and 34 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said seven of the new deaths had occurred in the past 24 hours, 19 occurred between Nov. 12 and 17, and the rest took place earlier or on an unknown date.

Authorities said hospitalizations decreased by one to 651, and 101 people were in intensive care, an increase of one. Quebec has reported a total of 128,440 COVID-19 infections and 6,744 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov 19, 2020.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press