Rural leaders urge Quebecers to be vigilant as travel restrictions are lifted

The government's decision to gradually lift travel restrictions across Quebec will need to be closely monitored, say municipal leaders in regions where there have been few cases of COVID-19 so far.

Government must act quickly to stem outbreaks if COVID-19 cases flare up where there are few now, they say

Road blocks that have been in place for more than a month in several regions of the province will be gradually lifted during the month of May. (Samuel Ranger/Radio-Canada)

Municipal officials in rural regions of Quebec say they're counting on visitors to be cautious — and on the Quebec government to act quickly if COVID-19 cases start to flare up — once travel restrictions within the province are lifted throughout the month of May.

On Wednesday, Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault announced the province will be gradually scaling back its non-essential travel ban in most regions of the province.

Road blocks, fines and random police checks were put in place in late March in many regions, in an effort to limit travel and keep the virus from spreading outside larger cities like Montreal and Quebec City.

Guilbault said since businesses and industries will be gradually reopening in the coming weeks, it was the "logical next step" to allow people to travel. 

Cottage country to open

The first regions to reopen, as of May 4, are the Laurentians, Lanaudière, Chaudière-Appalaches, and the area around Rouyn-Noranda.

The deputy mayor of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Jean-Léo Legault, said the government's decision comes at the right time.

He said he is not "overly concerned" that Montrealers who own cottages or secondary homes in the Laurentians are sure to be driving up.

"Most of them are going to come up and have a look at their home for the weekend and go back," said Legault.

Even though the province is asking Quebecers to stay in their own regions and avoid "non-essential travel," a spokesperson with Guilbault's office told CBC people are allowed to go to their secondary homes, although they should bring their groceries with them to avoid shopping locally.

Chris Winlo, co-owner of Mont-Tremblant Activities, an outdoor outfitter, said that "grey zone" is making it hard to anticipate how the new rules will impact business.

"I'm happy that it's reopening, but it doesn't mean that tourism will open for us or that people will be able to come here unless it's considered essential," said Winlo.

The tourism industry says it's hard to predict how the summer will play out — whether, for example, tourists will be allowed to Mont-Tremblant provincial park. (Jean-Sébastien Marier/Radio-Canada)

He expects the government will answer some of those questions in the coming days. He counts himself lucky that the economic shutdown happened in the spring, the "in-between season" for Mont-Tremblant's tourism industry.

"The timing is good, but the result was still dramatic and drastic."

'Mixed reactions' from residents

The Chaudière-Appalaches region, on the south shore of Quebec City, has only 392 confirmed cases of COVID-19. It has been closed off from its neighbours for several weeks — a situation the mayor of Beaumont, David Christopher, said has gone on long enough.

"We only have a small grocery store here and a small butcher shop," said Christopher. That's limited what residents could purchase, since they weren't allowed to drive to the city of Lévis, just 20 kilometres away.

During the summer, Beaumont's population of 3,000 grows by nearly 10 per cent with the arrival of summer residents in the town's three campgrounds. Many campers come from what are now COVID-19 "hot spots." 

"That concerns me a little bit," said Christopher. "I think most people will stay home and won't come in, but that is going to be hard to control."

The reopening will be phased out gradually over the month of May.

The travel ban will be lifted in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, La Tuque and Outaouais (with the exception of Gatineau) on May 11.

On May 18, the Lower Saint-Lawrence, Gaspé, Magdalen Islands North Shore and Charlevoix region will follow suit.

The mayor of Gaspé, Daniel Côté, said the government's announcement is getting "mixed reactions" from citizens.

The Cap-des-Rosiers lighthouse, near Gaspé, is among the outdoor destinations that could accommodate tourists while practising physical distancing. (Radio-Canada)

"I'm not sure the population was ready for such a rapid reopening," Côté said. He expected travel to be lifted between regions where there were fewer cases, for example, between Gaspé and the Lower Saint-Lawrence, "but not to the entire province."

Nonetheless, Côté said he was optimistic travel and economic activities will get back on track "slowly and progressively."

He is also waiting for clearer directives from the government to know what to expect for the summer tourism season. He hopes the Gaspé's natural landscapes and open spaces will allow some businesses to operate.

"I'm sure we'll have some kind of tourism, but nothing like the 800,000 visitors we usually welcome every year."

Above all, Côté said, he will be keeping a close eye on the number of cases of COVID-19 in the Gaspé region, currently sitting at 164 — one of the lowest in the province.

"If reopening brings an escalation of the pandemic, we will ask the public health authorities to step back."

With files from Cathy Senay, Spencer Van Dyk and Victoria Emanuelle Forest-Briand

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