Strict public health measures are returning to Quebec's Eastern Townships on Monday as authorities respond to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
The Quebec government had eased public health restrictions in the Townships in mid-March, allowing restaurant dinning rooms, gyms and bars to reopen.
But earlier this weekend, the region's public health director, Dr. Alain Poirier, said a significant and sustained increase in cases, and outbreaks, prompted authorities to return the Townships to red-zone status.
"The number of cases has been gradually increasing toward red for several weeks," Poirier said, adding that about half of new transmissions are in homes.
The new restrictions will include closing restaurant dining rooms, gyms and bars. They also forbid gatherings of people from different households on private property, inside or outside.
People living alone can pair up with one household while the region is under red-zone measures. The curfew will remain in effect between 9:30 p.m. and 5 a.m.
93% of new cases are variants
The Townships are now averaging more than 50 new cases daily. The vast majority, 93 per cent, are variants. "We might as well say that we only have variants," Poirier said.
Despite the higher infection rates, nearly 40 per cent of the region's residents have received their first dose of vaccine. That's more than 200,000 people.
Of those, 88 per cent of people over the age of 60 have received a first dose — a level of protection that wasn't available in the first and second waves.
"Vaccinations are progressing, so maybe our period in the red will be shorter," Poirier said.
On Friday, the region reported 86 new cases. That brings its active caseload to 554, a rate of 111.5 per 100,000 people.
But within the Townships, some sectors have been harder hit than others. The area in and around Lac-Mégantic, known as Le Granit, has more than 200 active cases, a rate of 962 per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the province.
All high schools and non-essential businesses in Le Granit have been shut at least until May 17, and the curfew was rolled back to 8 p.m.
Restaurant business loses with short notice, owner says
The Eastern Townships was among several regions in Quebec where the government decided to ease public health measures in mid-March, despite warnings from experts about the dangers of more contagious variants.
Cases quickly spiralled in the others. Quebec City, Chaudière-Appalaches and Outaouais — all were returned to red-zone measures, with some municipalities requiring added emergency restrictions.
Now that the Townships will also be a red-zone, businesses owners are facing renewed uncertainty.
Simon Gaudreault, co-owner of the Brasserie Dunham brew-pub, said the switching back-and-forth is both stressful and expensive for the pub-side of his businesses. He was fully stocked, serving customers, when the order came down.
It's difficult for the restaurant staff, Gaudreault said. Many will have to find another job to keep earning a living.
"It's hard because it is on such short notice," he said. "It's not even 48 hours in advance that we have to stop working. We have to call everyone and say, 'Hey, you're not working next week.'"