Montreal

With few COVID-19 cases, eastern Quebec seeks balance between tourism and public health

The Lower Saint-Lawrence has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in Quebec, but it's also a region that relies heavily on tourism, so it faces a dilemma as the government considers where to lift some pandemic restrictions.

In Lower Saint-Lawrence, where there hasn't been a sign of COVID-19 in 2 weeks, they await Legault's plan

The Lower Saint-Lawrence, a region that relies heavily on tourism, is currently isolated from the rest of the province by travel restrictions, and it doesn't know when those will be lifted. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Iouri Philippe Paillé was "sitting on a whole lot of beer" when the government announced in mid-March that certain businesses had to shut down in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 across Quebec.

Le Ketch, the microbrewery he co-owns in Sainte-Flavie, a village on the St. Lawrence River just past Rimouski, had already started brewing batches to sell during the busy summer season, when it makes 80 per cent of its annual sales. 

But not knowing if or when Quebecers will be able to travel in 2020 is a huge stress on Paillé and his team.

"Losing the summer season will be extremely hard," he said.

While the lockdown continues, Le Ketch has come up with a solution to respect the government rules that have allowed some restaurants to stay open during the crisis — offering a baked potato with every delivery of beer to their customers.

"The potato is also a symbol for us," said Paillé. ''Lâche pas la patate." That translates into "don't give up."

The uncertainty Le Ketch faces weighs heavily on small businesses in a region which relies so much on tourism, said Jonathan Laterreur, the general manager of the Rimouski-Neigette chamber of commerce.

Premier François Legault is expected to present a plan next week outlining which regions of Quebec will be allowed to reopen their schools and businesses.

But the desire to see workers go back to restaurants, stores and factories is also competing with residents' "legitimate concerns" about what that would mean for public health, said Laterreur.

No cases in 2 weeks

The Lower Saint-Lawrence has been relatively spared from the ravages of the pandemic, so far. Just 34 people are known to have contracted the virus. One person died, and 30 have recovered — making it the region with the fewest cases per capita, outside of the northern regions of Nunavik and James Bay.

The Lower Saint-Lawrence hasn't had a new case of COVID-19 in 13 days.

Those low numbers aren't being taken for granted, however. Residents have gotten used to physical-distancing rules, said Laterreur, and they're taking precautions.

"People here have shown they can serve as an example when it comes to safety," he said. "I think we are ready to band together and continue being careful."

Laterreur said even though tourism is the backbone of the Lower Saint-Lawrence, not everyone wants the government to lift travel restrictions to the region, as that would mean sharing the aisles of their local grocery store with visitors from regions with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases — with the accompanying risk.

Le Ketch decided it would offer a single baked potato on its takeout menu, so it could deliver it along with beer to customers in Sainte-Flavie. (Julia Caron/CBC)

"I can't speak for everyone but there are fears that are totally legitimate of what reopening could mean for public health," he said.

One of the keys to social acceptability of the easing of certain restrictions, Laterreur said, is providing clear guidelines to each sector, to ensure the economic reboot is done safely.

"We don't want to do all this and end up having to push back the relaunch by another year."

Preparing health sector

Rimouski Mayor Marc Parent has been "kicking around the idea of a provincial standard" to which retailers could adhere, to guarantee they meet basic requirements for hygiene and cleanliness.

He, too, hopes to see clear provincial guidelines provided for each type of industry.

"For the Legault government, the challenge of deconfinement will be a much bigger challenge than the confinement decision," Parent said.

He doesn't believe travel restrictions can be lifted just yet. He said simply opening up the local economy will unavoidably lead to more cases of COVID-19 in the Lower Saint-Lawrence.

"I'm not putting my head in the sand," said Parent.

Bic, a provincial park outside Rimouski, is one of the main tourist attractions in the Lower Saint-Lawrence region. (Julia Page/CBC)

But blessed with more lead time now to prepare for a local outbreak, the regional health network can be ready, Parent said.

"We know more about the virus. We know how to treat it and to protect ourselves from it."

Three local health centres have been reconfigured to remain "cold spots," where non-COVID-19 patients will be able to be treated.

"We have 70 beds ready for non-COVID patients, and we will be able to have more if needed," said Ariane Doucet-Michaud, spokesperson for the regional health agency, the CISSS du Bas-Saint-Laurent.

COVID-19 tests can now also being analyzed right in Rimouski, instead of being sent to Montreal, as was the case in the early days of the lockdown.

Still, when stores unlock their front doors, Parent said, it will ultimately be up to the local population not to fall back into their old habits, in order for the region to remain relatively free of COVID-19.

"There will always be a responsibility on citizens to limit the propagation."

With files from Brianne Fequet, Quebec AM and Radio-Canada

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