Quebec is prepared to remove face mask requirements in public places except public transportation by mid-April and lift other COVID-19 rules earlier than expected due to a “favourable recommendation” from public health, the province says.
The Ministry of Health and Social Services said in a news release Wednesday that as of March 12, all public places will be able to operate at 100 per cent capacity, with no table capacity limits or restrictions on operating hours for restaurants, bars, taverns, and casinos — two days ahead of schedule.
By that date, dancing and karaoke will also be permitted and the vaccine passport will be lifted in all places where it was previously required, the ministry said.
Meanwhile, public health experts are warning against reopening the province too quickly.
The province had earlier announced that most public health restrictions would be lifted by March 14, but that face masks would still be required for the time being.
Interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau is scheduled to hold a news conference on the COVID-19 situation in Quebec on Thursday morning to discuss more details about the announcement.
“Within 10 days, most of the measures will finally be lifted. This is a very important step, and we can be proud of all our efforts to achieve this,” said Health Minister Christian Dubé in the release.
“However, we must learn to live with the virus, which is still circulating, and remain cautious. Wearing a mask, even when it is no longer compulsory, will, among other things, be part of the arsenal we have to reduce the risk of transmission in certain circumstances.”
In good news for hockey fans, the Montreal Canadiens confirmed that the Bell Centre will operate at full capacity in time for the match on March 12 against the Seattle Kraken. The vaccine passport will no longer be required, but face masks will be mandatory “while not actively eating or drinking,” the organization said.
FACE MASKS TO BE GRADUALLY PHASED OUT
For face masks, the province intends to phase them out on a gradual basis, but the forecasted dates were not released. More details will be released “later, depending on the evolution of the epidemiological situation,” the health ministry said.
But they did say that masks will be abandoned “no later than mid-April,” including in CEGEPs and universities and with at least 10 days’ notice. A more specific date was not provided.
The measure will remain in place in public transportation at least through the month of April. Then, at the “earliest in May,” masking requirements will be lifted in public transport, also with 10 days’ notice.
Quebec’s labour board also provided an update on Wednesday about masking mandates in the workplace, saying that a mask will no longer be required in mid-April with some exceptions, such as “transportation of workers by bus or plane.”
Then, by early May, masking mandates in all workplaces will be lifted “depending on the evolution of the epidemiological situation,” the l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) said in a news release.
EXPERTS REASSURED BY PROVINCE RESUMING WASTEWATER TESTING
Medical experts are watching the news of the lifting of measures closely and are cautioning against moving too quickly to normal life.
They are reassured, however, by the province’s decision again resume wastewater testing for traces of COVID-19 after the funding stopped in December.
Dr. Karl Weiss, president of an association of infectious diseases specialists called Association des médecins microbiologistes-infectiologues du Québec, said the measure comes a little late into the pandemic, but he was optimistic it would help fight future COVID-19 waves.
“What we missed in Quebec is we handled every wave the same way, but you can’t fight wars nowadays as they did in medieval times,” Weiss said in an interview Wednesday with The Canadian Press.
“Nothing by itself will allow reducing COVID. What reduces the virus is vaccination, mask, tests, monitoring wastewater, everything put together.”
Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal-based cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, said wastewater testing is a valuable indicator of community transmission when PCR testing is not yet widely accessible.
“If you rely just on hospitalizations, those are lagging indicators,” he told CTV News Wednesday.
With Quebec opening up on the downward wave of the Omicron variant, Labos said he wonders whether the message from the government is causing some confusion for the public.
“You can’t, on the one hand, tell people restrictions are no longer necessary, but at the same time maybe do them if you can. You can’t tell people masks are not necessary, but you should probably do it. You can’t tell people vaccines are no longer mandatory, but please get vaccinated,” he said.
“There’s a certain contradiction in that messaging and the minute you tell people something is no longer mandatory, they’re going to interpret that to mean it’s no longer necessary.”
Earlier on Wednesday, new projections by the province’s public health research institute indicated that Quebec’s gradual reopening plan should not trigger a significant rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations or new infections in the greater Montreal area.
The modelling released by the Institut national de santé publique du Québec and by Université Laval indicated that vaccination coverage coupled with the fact that many people were infected by the Omicron variant should keep new cases and hospitalizations relatively low at least until May.
Marc Brisson, the head of a research group in mathematical modelling at Université Laval, said Quebec still needs to be cautious and monitor new variants as well as vaccine efficacy. He estimated that if the Omicron subvariant BA. 2 is 1.4 times as contagious as the original Omicron mutation, Quebec could see a rise in new hospitalizations and COVID-related deaths in March.
Wearing a face mask is still an “effective tool” to stop the spread of the coronavirus and should still be used in certain cases, according to the health ministry, including when someone has COVID-like symptoms, during the five days after the five-day isolation period, and during social interactions with people who are immunocompromised.
On Wednesday, COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to drop with a decrease of 58 fewer people in hospital, making for a current total of 1,381. However, the province surpassed 14,000 deaths due to the virus after 20 more people died.
With files from CTV Montreal’s Max Harrold and The Canadian Press