Quebec is reopening access to much of cottage country north of Montreal as of next Monday.
After releasing plans to reopen schools and businesses, Quebec on Wednesday continued its push to recover from weeks of pandemic-related shutdowns, announcing a gradual lifting of travel restrictions across much of the province.
The Laurentians and Lanaudiere regions north of Montreal will be accessible by May 4, while most of the province will be open again by May 18, Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault said.
Police checkpoints, however, which are blocking access to far northern communities and preventing people from crossing into Gatineau from Ontario, will remain for the foreseeable future, she told reporters in Quebec City.
Earlier this week, Quebec announced plans to reopen retail stores, the construction and manufacturing sectors, as well as primary schools and daycares that have been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Guilbault said that as people begin to travel around the province for business, “it’s the logical next step” to permit gradual access to the regions.
Neither Guilbault nor the province’s top doctor, Horacio Arruda, were clear on exactly what health indicators could push authorities to reconsider their plans to reopen these areas. Guilbault said if the “contagion curve takes off again” or “if the forecasts get cloudy” then authorities would delay implementing their strategy.
Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, said if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs in a region that previously had few cases, “we will intervene rapidly to snuff it out there, without having impacts.”
Public health authorities, he continued, will look at data to see how many secondary infections are caused by people who catch the virus in the regions, and how local health-care systems can “absorb new cases.”
Meanwhile, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Quebec continues to rise by the hundreds every day. On Wednesday, the province recorded 79 new deaths for a total of 1,761, and 837 additional cases for a total of 26,594.
Authorities say they are still looking for help in long-term care homes, where 65 per cent of deaths related to the virus have occurred. On Wednesday, the province began receiving a contingent of 400 more soldiers who will lend a hand in the overburdened facilities.
Canadian Armed Forces members are already working in five long-term care homes in Quebec, and Guilbault said the hundreds more will be deployed in eight others.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, regions directly north of Montreal such as the Laurentians and Lanaudiere, where many Quebecers and other Canadians have country homes, will be accessible beginning Monday.
Also opening Monday will be the Chaudiere-Appalaches region south of Quebec City, as well as the city of Rouyn-Noranda, located about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, near the Ontario border.
The following week, Guilbault said the Outaouais region in the southwestern part of the province will be accessible once again — except for the city of Gatineau. More northern areas such as Saguenay will also be reopened.
The Gaspe, Iles de la Madeleine and other northern areas such as Charlevoix, north of Quebec City, will have restrictions lifted May 18. Far remote areas such as Nunavik and the Cree territories around James Bay will remain closed until further notice, she said.
Guilbault said despite the plans to reopen schools, businesses and the regions, public health directives regarding physical distancing and bans on indoor and outdoor gatherings remain in effect.
She implored Quebecers to “continue to be obedient.”
“If we succeed, if we are prudent, if we are docile and if we are disciplined, we will succeed in our plan to open regions … without restarting the pandemic,” she said.
According to the government’s broader economic plan announced earlier this week, stores outside Montreal can reopen next Monday while those in the greater Montreal region will reopen May 11.
Stores in shopping malls will remain closed, unless they can be accessed from outside.
The construction industry will completely reopen starting May 11, while manufacturing companies can resume operations the same day with initial limits on the total number of employees who can work at a time.
Elementary schools and daycares across Quebec would be reopened by May 19.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2020.
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press