Legault defends government against opposition claim that 'social peace' threatened

·4 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault defended his government Tuesday against an opposition charge that mixed messaging around public health restrictions is sowing unrest.

Governments around the world, he said, are encountering pushback as they limit people's freedoms to control COVID-19 transmission.

“I think the large majority of Quebecers understand now,” Legault told reporters in Quebec City. “We cannot open restaurants. We cannot open gyms. There is a risk of contagion.”

On Monday, Legault extended a partial lockdown on Quebec's biggest cities, from Oct. 28 until Nov. 23. He said the rates of infection and death in the province justify keeping gyms, bars and other entertainment venues closed in COVID-19 hot spots such as Montreal and Quebec City.

But some gym owners say they are prepared to defy those orders. Hours before he extended the lockdown order, a coalition of more than 200 fitness facilities said its members were prepared to reopen Thursday with or without the government's blessing. 

On Tuesday, at least one gym owner said he will reopen this week. Dan Marino, the owner of the Mega Fitness Gym in Quebec City, said in an interview he planned to report himself to police in order to get a ticket. He said he wants to challenge the fine in court.

"We're not more dangerous than a Walmart," he said, comparing his business to others that aren't facing lockdown orders. "We're not more dangerous than a Costco. We're not more dangerous than a Dollarama." 

Legault responded to the threat by issuing one of his own. He said his cabinet will pass a decree empowering police to ticket gym owners and their customers who are caught violating health orders.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said the inconsistency in the government's message is behind the threats of "civil disobedience." She said the failure of the government to properly explain its decisions undermines people's confidence in the state and is a risk to "social peace."

"We are going in the wrong direction when we have people who now challenge government rules and say they are not going to play by the rules," Anglade said.

Manon Masse, the co-spokesperson for Quebec solidare, the province's second largest opposition party, said she doesn't understand why some businesses -- like an Olymel pork processing plant where she said more than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death have been reported -- have been allowed to stay open, while others, such as gyms and cinemas, have been forced to close.

Masse said the government hasn't shared the data that influenced its decision to close gyms. 

Some gym owners are having second thoughts about defying the government. Christian Menard, vice-president of Pro Gym in Montreal, said his business may open Thursday in a "symbolic" fashion but he isn't sure. 

Menard, who participated in a news conference Monday on behalf of the coalition of fitness-related businesses, drew media attention because of his affiliation with the Hells Angels. He said Tuesday his involvement with the outlaw motorcycle gang doesn't have anything to do with his job at the gym.

"I'm a good trainer, but nobody talks about that," he said in an interview. "(Reporters) just talk about the fact that I was a Hells Angel."

The Fitness Industry Council of Canada, a trade organization, said its roughly 660 members in Quebec don't plan to participate in any civil disobedience. In a statement, the organization said that while it's concerned that closing gyms and other facilities will harm people's mental and physical health, its members plan to follow the rules.

But the frustration isn't limited to fitness owners. Francois Meunier, vice-president with the province's restaurateur association, said in an interview his members can't withstand an extended period without dining service.

"Disappointed, frustrated, worried," Meunier said of his members. "We believe that restaurants can welcome patrons in a safe fashion -- we proved it during the summer months."

Quebec reported 963 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and 19 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus -- four of which occurred in the past 24 hours.

The number of patients in hospital declined by 16 to 527, and the number of intensive care patients dropped by two to 91. Quebec has reported a total of 101,885 COVID-19 cases and 6,172 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press