MONTREAL — Quebec health officials announced on Tuesday the lifting of several long-standing COVID-19 health measures, including a ban on dancing and singing in bars and a recommendation that people work from home where possible.
Health Minister Christian Dubé told a news conference the easing will take place Nov. 15, adding that also as of that date high school students will no longer be required to wear masks in the classroom.
"We have said that, when possible, we would continue to relax measures," Dubé told a news conference in Quebec City, noting that the approach has been to proceed cautiously to avoid having to reinstate restrictions. “Now, I think we can say that the epidemiological situation is relatively under control, but I will nonetheless repeat the need for caution.”
Officials cited the high vaccination rate among Quebecers aged 12 to 17 — 87.9 per cent are adequately vaccinated — as justification for removing the school mask requirement, although they will still have to be worn in common areas and on school transit. Elementary school students, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, will continue to wear masks in class.
"We have not observed many cases in high schools and the rates of vaccination (for that age group) are very high," said Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director.
Bar patrons will no longer have to stay seated, and dancing and karaoke will be permitted as long as participants wear masks, or in the case of karaoke are adequately separated form other customers. Authorities are also removing the requirement for bar and restaurant owners to keep a customer registry, though proof of vaccination will still be required to enter.
A return to office work is being encouraged by public health officials, but it will be up to employers to determine how to handle their own situations.
Authorities also announced that proof of vaccination won't be needed to partake in outdoor winter sports, with the exception of activities involving a ski lift.
Health officials weren't ready to loosen the limit on indoor gatherings, which remains at 10 people from a maximum of three households.
"The objective of the public health director is to make the population happy while balancing the potential risk," Arruda said, promising an update on rules for the holiday period in the coming weeks. "In COVID-19, six weeks is a long time," he said.
Dubé said the key indicator for him in terms of Christmas gatherings will be the potential impact on the health network.
Quebec reported 490 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and six more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said hospitalizations rose by six, to 250. The number of people in intensive care rose by four, to 71.
Arruda said he expects Quebec will see an increase in cases as a result of other measures that took effect Monday, including allowing full capacity in bars and restaurants and restoring last call to 3 a.m. But he doesn't expect a jump in hospitalizations because of the extent of vaccination coverage in the province.
The province's public health institute says about 90.6 per cent of residents aged 12 and over have received at least one vaccine dose and 87.9 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Health authorities hope to quickly vaccinate Quebecers aged five to 11 as soon as Health Canada and the province's immunization committee have made a decision on Pfizer's vaccine for that age group. Daniel Paré, head of the province's vaccination campaign, says his goal is to have Quebecers aged five to 11 get their first dose by Christmas.
Health officials also said they are working with public health officials in Nunavik, the Quebec region that is home to the province's Inuit communities, where officials are dealing with a high number of cases. According to Quebec’s public health institute, there are 1,311 active cases per 100,000 people in Nunavik, making it the most affected part of the province on a per-capita basis. For the entire province, that figure is 52 active cases per 100,000 people.
Arruda said officials are trying to send resources and promote vaccination in the remote communities, where the vaccination rate stands at about 40 per cent. "They have been protected in the first waves by controlling access from the south, but some of them come to the south, get infected, and bring it back," Arruda said. "We are trying to be very aggressive in that region."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2021.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press