Montreal looks for 'winning conditions' to restart economy and keep everyone safe

Stay-at-home orders may soon be loosened as the rate of increase in COVID-19 infections starts to come down, but how to allow people to move about the city and maintain physical distancing is a challenge.

STM, chamber of commerce mull staggered work hours to reduce rush-hour crowding

Mayor Valérie Plante says her administration is working with the STM to ensure public transit is safe to use as Montreal's economy slowly rebuilds from a near-complete shutdown. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Quebec has begun loosening restrictions on non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders may soon be scaled back as the rate of increase in COVID-19 infections in the province starts to come down.

But with a vaccine likely more than a year away, how can Montreal restart its economic engine? People will still need to stay two metres away from each other as they commute, shop or — dare we dream? — eat and drink together in restaurants and bars again.

How that will happen is exactly what Mayor Valérie Plante and business leaders across the city are trying to figure out, in collaboration with public health authorities.

"We really want to bring together the winning conditions so the deconfinement is safe," Plante said.

Premier François Legault has made it clear that reopening the economy will be done gradually, but Plante says whatever is done in the rest of the province won't necessarily apply to densely populated Montreal — a petri dish that quickly blossomed into Quebec's pandemic epicentre.

As for when Montreal will be open for business, the regional public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said it's "pretty difficult to give a date."

Drouin said people are going to have to get used to covering their faces with a mask or scarf, and she confirmed that restaurants and bars "are not going to be the first places to open," given the difficulty in maintaining physical-distancing measures in such places.

Montreal's public health authority is working to identify which sectors will be the first to open and what kind of rules will be in place to avoid further spread of the virus that's killed more than 900 Quebecers already.

Plante will soon unveil her economic recovery plan, with the hope that the city will be "even stronger" than before, but "the challenges in terms of public transit and the management of public spaces are the greatest," she said.

How will people get to work?

Plante told CBC News that the city is working with its public transit agency, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), to find ways to get people to work safely.

But Philippe Schnobb, STM's chair, admits that's no easy task.

"If we have to maintain a certain distance between two passengers, that might be a really big challenge," Schnobb said.

STM's top brass has been discussing this conundrum with groups like the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal — looking at options such as staggering work hours to reduce rush-hour crowding that has made even two centimetres' distance between commuters feel like a luxury in recent years.

Without tourists, Old Montreal, closed to anyone who doesn't live there, is eerily empty. The city is looking for ways to reopen businesses gradually, while still preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Charles Contant/Radio-Canada)

Despite having only a few weeks to plan, Schnobb remains confident solutions will be found before transit users return to the daily grind.

Picking up ridership will be critical to the agency's bottom line. 

At the start of April, an STM analysis revealed that week-day bus trips, normally about 140,000 a day, dropped 83 per cent, and the Metro system's 99,000 daily trips dropped by 90 per cent.

Schnobb was unwilling to predict how plummeting ridership will affect the STM.

"If the crisis finishes soon, the impact will be less," he said. "We have to wait until the end of the fiscal year to figure out exactly what that impact is."

Views differ on staggered shifts

Implementing staggered work hours isn't nearly as simple as it sounds, said Gopinath Jeyabalaratnam, Quebec policy analyst with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

People have families and lives centred around routines, he said, and not everybody can suddenly shift their schedules by a couple of hours.

Working from home is going to have to become the norm for those who can, he said. But not all companies can provide the needed technology, such as servers and laptops, to make that possible. That's why the government must help businesses drop the traditional office model, he said.

Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, says Montreal has proven itself able to adapt and will continue to do so as businesses reopen with new rules. (Radio-Canada)

However, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Michel Leblanc, said staggering work hours is possible if it's done carefully. Much has already happened in the wake of the pandemic that many would have thought impossible in the past, he said.

Opening hours could be regulated by geographical sector, for example, with businesses on some streets opening and closing later in the day, Leblanc suggested.

Many businesses faltering

Jeyabalaratnam said many of Montreal's 60,000 businesses are struggling to stay afloat, and he said there needs to be more support from all levels of government to help them cover overhead like rent. That's especially true for bars and restaurants that will likely stay closed longer than other businesses, he said.

"The economy right now is in an artificial coma," he said. "If you don't feed it, it doesn't work."

"The patient — in this case the economy — will die."

Even if that gets sorted out, Jeyabalaratnam said, reducing hours so people can only shop or use public transit during certain times will create more of a problem, as people flock to whichever neighbourhood is open.

That's what has happened with the closure of liquor and grocery stores on Sundays, he said. Instead of shopping on Sundays, customers are rushing to the stores on Saturdays.

'Price we have to pay'

Leblanc said businesses have to prepare for an all new way of operating in a pandemic, but it can't be done without help from authorities.

He said public health needs to provide clear rules and protocols for workplace safety and help businesses prepare.

Montrealers must be able to return to tightly packed spaces like elevators and Metro cars safely, even if it means everybody wears a mask, he said.

Some say telecommuting must become the new norm, and the traditional high-rise office model is a thing of the past, as it puts too many people at close quarters. (Daniel Thomas/Radio-Canada)

The city also needs to be ready to help manage lines as they form on sidewalks in front of businesses that are limiting occupancy.

Despite all that needs to be done, Leblanc said, he trusts that citizens will do their part.

"We have all been happily surprised by the discipline that Montrealers and Quebecers have [shown]," said Leblanc.

People will do whatever it takes, such as wearing homemade masks in public and keeping a safe distance, to start to resume near-normal lives.

"If that's the price we have to pay, I would not be surprised that we will see lots of masks," he said. And  — Montrealers being who they are, "lots of creativity in the look of these masks."

With files from Radio-Canada

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