Montreal

COVID-19 in Quebec: Under increasing fire, premier postpones reopening of Montreal retail stores

Quebec Premier François Legault said crowded Montreal hospitals prompted the decision announced Monday to wait another two weeks before allowing most stores to reopen in the greater Montreal region.

François Legault responds to mounting concerns transmission rates are still too high in Montreal

Health-care workers are shown at a mobile COVID-19 test clinic in the Montreal last Sunday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The latest:

  • Quebec has 32,623 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 2,280 people have died. That's 75 more recorded deaths, including 72 deaths of seniors in care.
  • There are 1,772 people in hospital, including 218 in intensive care.
  • Here's a guide to the numbers.
  • Some retail businesses outside the greater Montreal area reopen today. We've updated our guide to what's open and closed.

The reopening of retail stores in the greater Montreal area will be delayed by a week, until the week of May 18, Quebec Premier François Legault said Monday, following widespread concerns the novel coronavirus remains a pervasive threat in the province's metropolis.

Stores that have entrances onto a street were slated to reopen on May 11, according to a government plan announced last week. 

But criticism has been mounting against that plan for several days, with Quebec's official Opposition Liberals arguing transmission rates are too high in and around the island of Montreal for stores to open their doors so soon.

Montreal's public health officials are particularly concerned about outbreaks in the city's north and east ends.

As part of an effort to ramp up COVID-19 testing in those areas, six city buses will be turned into mobile testing clinics, Dr. Mylène Drouin, the public health director for the island of Montreal, announced Monday afternoon.

"We are not lowering the epidemic curve,"  said Drouin. "We can see a plateau and even an increase in cases."

Along with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, Drouin saluted the premier for pushing back some of the plans to reopen Montreal's economy.

The island now has 16,606 confirmed cases, Drouin said. That's 355 new cases and 45 additional recorded deaths in the past 24 hours — most of them in long-term care homes. A total of 1,410 Montrealers have died from COVID-19 complications.

Hospital crowding, continued staffing issues at CHSLDs

Legault said his decision to push back the reopening of retail stores was prompted by the crowded situation in Montreal's hospitals.

"The great majority of hospitalizations caused by coronavirus are currently happening in the Montreal region," he said at a news conference in Quebec City.

That leaves Montreal hospitals with less capacity to deal with a surge of new cases, which public health experts warn could be a consequence of lifting confinement measures, Legault said.

The premier also put out a call once again for more workers to help in Montreal's long-term care facilities for seniors (CHSLDs), where the outbreaks have been the most deadly in the province.

There are now 11,000 people absent from the health-care network, Legault said. That's despite many positions having been filled by 350 Canadian Armed Forces soldiers, more than 8,000 people who applied through the jecontribue website and more than 1,000 health-care teachers and students. 

"Regardless of your qualifications, we are now ready to add you in our CHSLDs," Legault said. 

He said the government is in talks with health-care workers' unions, which have long raised concerns about the low pay and demanding work in chronically short-staffed seniors' care institutions.

"We need to significantly increase orderlies' salaries," said Legault. "We're discussing with the unions. The discussions are going well," Legault said.

Premier gives QESBA a point-blank 'No'

The situation in long-term care homes and hospitals outside the greater Montreal region is less critical. Retail stores in Quebec's outlying regions began opening today, and elementary schools in those regions are scheduled to resume classes on May 11.

Legault warned that reopening schools while following physical-distancing guidelines does entail "incredible gymnastics" in terms of logistics, and that everything won't be perfect.

"I'm asking Quebecers to be understanding, to be a little indulgent," he said. 

But just moments later, Legault flat out refused a request from English-language schools boards in the province for some flexibility when it comes to the date they must open.

Pressed by CBC's Cathy Senay, François Legault says the job of school boards is to open their schools when they're told to do so. 1:19

The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) is worried not every school will be able to meet the requirements by the two dates the province has laid out: May 11 for schools in Quebec's regions, and May 19 for schools in the greater Montreal area.

QESBA has said individual boards will decide how many schools can open. Legault said the English boards don't have that power — and all must open on the dates set out by the province. 

"It will be the parents who will decide if they send or not their child to school, not the old school boards," he said.

QESBA's executive director, Russell Copeman, said especially in Montreal — the epicentre of the virus in Canada — reopening schools has to be a well thought-out process that ensures the safety of everyone involved. 

He said QESBA wants to work on reopening in partnership with the Quebec government.

"We're encouraged to hear the premier say, 'We've got two weeks [until the May 19 opening date], and we'll adjust if that date is not appropriate,'" Copeman said. 

"At the moment, we feel it's not appropriate, but we're open to letting the next week go by and see."

Face-coverings for teachers optional

Quebec is the only province that plans to reopen schools before the summer, though high schools, colleges and universities won't see students until the fall. 

Attendance, moreover, is not mandatory. Some Montreal-area schools have asked parents to let them know by today if they intend to send their children.

Legault admitted Monday that adjustments will have to be made as schools reopen. 

"We need people to be very flexible," the premier said. "We don't have an operation guide on how to open a school during a pandemic."

Teachers won't be obliged to wear a mask at school, Legault said, but masks will be permitted for those who want to wear them and they will eventually be provided by the province. 

Would PM send his kids back to school right now?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he'd probably wait 'until the last minute' to decide whether or not to send his kids back to school if they lived in Quebec. (Radio-Canada)

On Tout le monde en parle Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked whether he would send his kids back to school if he were living in Quebec.

"I don't know," Trudeau said. "It's a very personal decision for many, many parents."

He said he would want to know specifics about how the school was making changes to follow public health recommendations.

"I would make that decision probably at the last minute," he said. The return to class is voluntary and does not include high schools.

"It's tough on kids, they want to see their friends," Trudeau said. "It's tough on parents."

With files from Colin Harris and Radio-Canada

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