New rules about wearing masks outside went little noticed in Quebec; government PR strategy blamed
Political concerns are getting in the way of public health communication, opposition parties say
Major changes were made last week to Quebec's rules about where and when masks have to be worn in public, but critics say the government made little effort to inform people that they were expected to do something different.
Since Thursday, Quebecers living in orange and red zones — which cover most of the province — have been required to wear masks outside under certain circumstances. Those circumstances include:
- When you're doing a sporting or recreational activity with people from households other than your own. The rule holds whether or not you're two metres apart.
- When you're sitting outside with people from different households at distances less than two metres. The mask isn't necessary if you can keep at least two metres distance while sitting.
The sunny, warm weather in Montreal this past weekend drew thousands to the city's green spaces, offering the first real test of whether the public had registered the rule change. Among Montreal media outlets, the consensus was that they hadn't.
"In Montreal, parks are packed and the mask ignored," read a weekend headline in Le Devoir. "Even the police are confused about wearing the mask," said the Journal de Montréal on Sunday.
In Outaouais, where added lockdown measures are in place to deal with spiraling infection rates, hundreds crowded onto a beach, prompting police to try to spread them out, or get them to wear masks.
The outdoor mask rule was among several new measures the Quebec government introduced last week to slow the spread of COVID-19 variants, which are more contagious and more likely to send infected people to hospital.
"Public Health was worried that many people who are taking advantage of the warm weather will forget the basic rule of keeping a two-metre distance from people from different households," said Marie-Claude Lacasse, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry.
"This is all the more important with the high transmission levels of variants," she said.
Even if outdoor activities remain among the safest settings for socializing, the variants require the public to take extra precautions, said Nathalie Grandvaux, who researches infectious diseases at the Université de Montréal.
"When you look at how fast variants are spreading elsewhere, I don't think we can afford to wait to see if we get infections outside," she said in an interview with Radio-Canada. "For once we are ahead of the curve."
But Grandvaux said that in order for the public to adopt the new measure, the government needs to take the time to explain why it's necessary.
"If I can make a small suggestion to the government: take five minutes at a news conference [this week] to explain why you brought in this rule," she said.
About those news conferences
Those provincial government news conferences — chaired by Premier François Legault, and attended by Health Minister Christian Dubé and Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda — have recently become a source of irritation for many.
The irritation stems less from what is said than what is not said.
The change around wearing masks outside was announced in a statement released after Tuesday's 5 p.m. news conference, meaning journalists couldn't relay the information when ratings and readership was highest.
That statement also slipped in a travel ban to yellow zones and new spacing rules for movie theatres.
Last week also saw Quebec's workplace safety board stipulate that procedure masks must be worn at all times at work, and that cloth masks no longer meet safety standards — two other significant changes that Legault didn't mention during his news conference.
"People want to find solutions to this pandemic," Grandvaux said. "If they understand why they're being asked to do something, they'll do it."
Legault's critics are concerned his news conferences — which are carried live on the network news channels — are blurring the line between public health and partisan messaging.
In his appearances last week, Legault began by defending himself against opponents who have questioned his handling of the pandemic.
He has, at various times in the past, used the news conferences to assure Quebecers that he will meet his election promises, or to comment on the latest academic freedom controversy.
Time to rethink the model?
Arruda, meanwhile, rarely appears in public without either the premier or the health minister by his side, unlike some of his counterparts in other provinces.
That has frustrated attempts by journalists and opposition politicians to clarify the public health reasoning behind certain policy decisions, such as the need to rollback the curfew to 8 p.m. in Montreal and Laval, which Legault made at a surprise announcement on Thursday.
"It is time to separate political communication from scientific communication," Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Québec Solidaire's health critic, said in an open letter this weekend.
The Parti Québécois's parliamentary leader, Pascal Bérubé, said the government should be announcing major rule changes before the news conferences begin, to allow journalists to prepare questions.
"The government has to remember that the news conferences that it holds in connection with the pandemic are not opportunities to show off … but moments to provide clear and complete information to the Quebec public," Bérubé said in an interview with La Presse Canadienne. "We absolutely have to rethink the formula."
The political context, of course, is that the opposition has been unable to dent the government's popularity and may be anxious to draw attention to their proposals.
But even the National Assembly's press gallery acknowledged it had concerns about how the government distributed information last week. "It is, effectively, a problem," Marco Bélair-Cirino, president of the gallery, said in an interview with the Journal de Montréal on Sunday.
The events last night in Montreal, where a large anti-curfew protest devolved into vandalism, underscored the potential for increased resistance to public health measures if the government can't make the case for why they're still necessary.
With files from Radio-Canada and La Presse Canadienne