MONTREAL — Quebec's health minister threatened owners of bars and other venues across the province on Monday, saying he won't hesitate to shut them down if COVID-19 public health directives are not followed.
Describing the scenes at some establishments over the weekend as "unacceptable," Christian Dube told a news conference that by Thursday, he'll release a list of actions the government will take to penalize those who he said are threatening the province's progress in containing the novel coronavirus.
"Your responsibility is to ensure that public health directives are complied with," Dube said. "If the rules are not respected, we will close your venue." He didn't single out any bars or clubs, but local media published videos from some Montreal-area venues with crowded dance floors and little physical distancing.
Dube's warning came a day after health authorities urged people who ate at a restaurant last Tuesday on Montreal's south shore to get tested for COVID-19. The Mile Public House noted Monday the infected patrons hadn't yet been diagnosed and they didn't catch the virus at the restaurant.
On Monday, Dr. Julie Loslier, a regional health director, told Radio-Canada that some of the cases at the bar were tied to a cluster of 20 cases on Montreal's south shore.
The slight rise in infections in the Montreal area was worrisome enough for Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante, who said Monday that the city intends to make masks mandatory in all indoor public places.
"Our intention is that the wearing of face coverings will be mandatory in enclosed public places as of July 27, as is the case for public transit," Plante wrote in a social media post.
Plante said the outbreaks could undermine the city's efforts and could seriously hurt businesses trying to regain their footing after a prolonged closure due to the pandemic. "A setback would be a disaster for human lives and for our economy," she said.
Dube said the government is considering increasing the presence of police around places where people gather, such as bars and nightclubs. He added Quebec is also studying measures such as further limiting the occupancy of some venues and operating hours.
His message to owners and managers of bars, night clubs, beaches, swimming pools and racing venues was a simple one.
"Your responsibility is to ensure that public health directives are complied with," Dube said. "If the rules are not respected, we will close your venue."
"Obviously this is not a step we look forward to taking, but we only need to look across the border to see what is happening in some American states," Dube said, regarding a marked increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in several southern parts of the U.S. that reopened bars, restaurants and beaches.
"There is no question of permitting a minority of offenders to endanger Quebec's health and recovery."
Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's director of public health, said his biggest concern is about small outbreaks around the province that could cause the number of cases to rise before the arrival of what he expects will be a second wave of infection in the fall.
"It's clear if there are places where there are outbreaks we cannot control and there is transmission, we will have to do intervention," Arruda said. "It could be regionally, it could be specific, or it could be a complete shutdown of this sector, which is something we're not looking for, and why we're asking people to respect things."
Arruda said he didn't regret opening bars — among the last establishments to reopen in Quebec — saying most owners have applied the rules and most patrons have respected them. But he said he isn't above being the bad guy when it comes to closing down businesses.
"I'm telling you, if people don't do what is supposed to be done, because it's not only your life but the life of others (at risk), I will be a bad boy," Arruda said.
Quebec reported three new deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, for a total of 5,577. The province also reported 74 more cases of the coronavirus, for a total of 55,937, including 25,378 cases that are considered recovered.
Hospitalizations rose slightly for the first time in more than a week to reach 377, an increase of six. Of those patients, 25 are in intensive care, one less than the prior day.
Public health authorities conducted 6,122 tests on Saturday, the last day for which numbers are available.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press