Quebec cancels plans to allow Christmas gatherings with COVID-19 cases on the rise

·3 min read

MONTREAL — The Quebec government backtracked Thursday on its plan to allow holiday gatherings over four days at Christmas, saying the COVID-19 situation in the province was unlikely to improve enough for them to be safe.

Premier Francois Legault announced that in the province's red zones, which cover the most densely populated areas of the province, multi-household gatherings of up to 10 people will no longer be allowed between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27.

“New cases leads to more hospitalizations, and if we continue in this direction, hospitals will start to overflow,” Legault told a news conference after the province announced 1,470 new COVID-19 infections and 30 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus.

“With the numbers we have, it’s unrealistic to think we’ll be able to change the situation in time for Christmas.”

The Quebec government on Nov. 19 gave the green light to the get-togethers on the condition that people isolate for a week before and a week after.

But now the risk has been deemed too high with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise and a health system deemed fragile due to a lack of staffing. Legault said 6,600 health-care workers were off the job on sick leave or preventive leave as of Thursday.

People living alone in red zones are allowed to have one visitor at a time, something Legault encouraged. "We can and we must visit them," he said. "They need us more than ever."

Gatherings will still be permitted in regions that are not at the highest alert level.

The premier hinted earlier this week things were looking grim before pulling the plug on Thursday. He said if he had it do over, he wouldn't have announced the gatherings last month, but he said at the time there was a sincere hope case numbers would decline.

“I’m trying to do my best, like I said in French, I’m not perfect,” Legault said.

He said Quebec will maintain a longer school break, as planned, with distance learning several days before Christmas for elementary and high school students.

Many businesses and schools had altered their schedules to allow for the now nixed gatherings, Legault acknowledged. "Currently, we are at the worst time of the pandemic, the worst time of the past nine months, so maintaining these measures, I think it can help," he said.

The province has seen COVID-19 cases surge, with more than 1,500 reported on Tuesday. Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's director of public health, said community transmission is behind the rising cases.

"The virus is everywhere," Arruda said, adding that the failure by some to follow public health guidelines is fuelling the spread.

The province is battling over 1,200 active outbreaks, with most occurring in workplaces, schools and long-term care and seniors' residences.

Montreal reported the largest number of new cases Thursday, with 373, while the Quebec City, Monteregie and Lanaudiere regions each reported 145 cases or more.

Legault said he was confident the vast majority of Quebecers would not disregard his latest edict and gather anyway during the holidays, or travel from red zones to the few regions where gatherings are still permitted.

"Nobody wants to infect someone else from the same family or some of their friends," Legault said.

"So we'll have to explain the danger, and when I see the number of deaths in the world in the last few days, I still don't understand how some people can think that it's not dangerous."

Of the Quebec deaths announced Thursday, 12 occurred in the last 24 hours. Hospitalizations declined by three to 737, while the number of people in intensive care remained unchanged at 99.

Quebec has reported 146,532 cases, 7,155 deaths and 126,179 recoveries since the beginning of the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec 3, 2020

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press