MONTREAL — Quebec's spiralling number of daily COVID-19 infections hit a new high on Tuesday for the third straight day as new data showed the highly contagious Omicron variant accounting for about 80 per cent of new cases.
The record 5,043 new cases came one day after the province imposed a series of strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of the disease, including an order for bars, gyms and concert halls to close.
That order hit bar owners "like a hammer blow to the head," said Renaud Poulin, the CEO of a Quebec bar owner's association.
Poulin said many bar owners expected that restrictions introduced last week — including reducing capacity to 50 per cent and banning dancing and karaoke — would be the only measures affecting their business over the holidays, particularly given that all bar customers must be double vaccinated.
For the members of the Corporation des propriétaires des bars, brasseries et tavernes du Québec, the new restrictions will likely mean taking on debt, Poulin said in an interview Tuesday, because government support programs only cover a portion of fixed costs.
He said he understands that Quebecers' health is the most important priority. "But we’re saying to the politicians, there has to be more support for the entrepreneurs, it's not enough," he said. "These people, they're going to pay the price for everyone."
He's also worried about workers and expects many will leave the industry for more stable occupations at a time when bars already face a shortage of workers.
“It’s difficult for the employees to lose their jobs one week before Christmas,” he said, adding that he doesn't think the $300 a week in government assistance offered to affected workers is enough for them to live on.
The rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 infections — a week ago, health officials reported 1,747 new cases — came as the province's public health institute said the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is now dominant in the province.
"The analysis of the sentinel laboratories reveals a very rapid progression of the Omicron variant, with a prevalence of approximately 80 per cent barely three weeks after the first case confirmed in Quebec," the Institut national de santé publique du Québec said in a news release.
The institute said that around 80 per cent of screening tests for coronavirus variants conducted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday suggested the presence of Omicron, compared with around 20 per cent for Delta. A week earlier, the Delta variant was found in 78.2 per cent of screening tests, compared with 21.8 per cent for Omicron.
The Health Department said Tuesday Quebec has 29,318 active cases of COVID-19. The number of hospitalizations had risen by 18 from the day before, to 415, and 88 people were in intensive care — an increase of six.
While rising, hospitalizations remain well below levels a year ago when vaccination was just beginning. On Dec. 21, 2020, Quebec reported 20,297 active COVID-19 cases and officials said 1,048 people were in hospital, with 146 in intensive care.
Also Tuesday, Quebec Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said she has asked the federal government for military help to accelerate the province's mass vaccination campaign.
Late Tuesday, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said the rising case counts in Quebec are deeply concerning and the federal government will work with the province.
"We received a request for federal assistance from Quebec this evening and we will be working with them in the coming days to identify federal resources," he said on Twitter.
Premier François Legault is expected to address the province on Wednesday. He wrote on Twitter Tuesday that Quebec faces "very difficult choices," adding: "What guides us is the capacity we will or won't have to care for sick Quebecers in the coming weeks." Health Minister Christian Dubé said Monday that further restrictions would be considered after new projections taking the spread of the Omicron variant into account were presented to the government.
In Montreal, Mayor Valérie Plante, who is recovering from COVID-19, reintroduced a state of emergency Tuesday, which had been lifted in August.
"With the state of emergency, we will be able to purchase protective and screening equipment for essential workers," she said, adding that it will also make it easier for the city to set up emergency shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
According to the public health institute, the city's 8,033 active COVID-19 cases are the most of any region in Quebec, but the institute says the Estrie region, east of Montreal, is the most affected region on a per capita basis.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press