Earlier curfew hits Montreal's usual springtime joy. Will it even work?

Starting Sunday, residents in Montreal and Laval will be forced to head indoors at 8 p.m., instead of 9:30 p.m., or face a hefty fine. Experts say the stricter curfew could help, but other changes are needed as well.

Starting Sunday, Montreal and Laval residents will need to be inside by 8 p.m. due to COVID-19

Residents in Montreal and Laval, Que., will have to head inside earlier starting Sunday, or risk a hefty fine. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

With the pandemic dragging on, and public health restrictions depriving Montrealers of any sense of normalcy, taking a late-evening stroll in the warming weather had been, for many, a moment of reprieve.

Starting Sunday, however, residents in Montreal and neighbouring Laval, Que., will be forced to head indoors by 8 p.m., instead of 9:30 p.m., or face a hefty fine.

"It's just the inconsistency that's really bothering me, you know what I mean? 9:30, 8:00, 9:30, 8:00," said Jean-Sebastien Collin, one of many who expressed consternation upon hearing the decision.

In announcing the change, Premier François Legault said it was a necessary "preventative" measure to stop people from gathering indoors, and avoid an explosion of COVID-19 cases. The earlier 8 p.m. curfew doesn't have an end date, he said.

There's no hard evidence that shows the curfew, first put in place three months ago, has had a direct impact on the spread of the virus. 

The curfew was first imposed Jan. 9 as the province grappled with a surge in hospitalizations following the holiday period. 

Although later moved back to 9:30 p.m. in some regions, including Montreal, it has remained in place ever since. 

'Performative' rather than science-based

Prativa Baral, an epidemiologist and doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said an earlier curfew may help Montreal and Laval keep the third wave under control and avoid the spikes seen in other parts of the province. 

But she pointed out that the bulk of outbreaks have occurred in schools and workplaces, and more could still be done to stop the spread in those settings.

In an email, she described the curfew change as "more performative than science-based."

"While I'm happy to see the curfew being added, I'm also skeptical because it's not the curfew alone that will be effective. The virus doesn't stop operating before or after a certain hour," Baral said.

WATCH | Prativa Baral on the earlier curfew:

Epidemiologist skeptical return to 8 p.m. curfew enough to slow variant

2 years ago
Duration 2:30
Epidemiologist Prativa Baral says it is better to act sooner rather than later to slow spread of coronavirus variant.

Montreal and Laval have so far resisted a spike in cases like the one seen in Quebec City, but given the presence of more contagious coronavirus variants, public health officials have said it's only a matter of time.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, an MNA for the opposition Québec Solidaire, said the Legault government still hasn't done enough to curtail the spread of the virus. In Montreal, workplaces now account for roughly half of all outbreaks.

"The premier says [the curfew] is a preventive measure, but what is he doing as far as all the other preventive measures that would actually protect people in their workplaces or schools, like ventilation and rapid testing?" Nadeau-Dubois said.

Risks and rewards as frustration grows

It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of curfews when, in most places (including Quebec), they were instituted as part of a broader set of restrictions. 

In Melbourne, Australia, for instance, authorities put in place an 8.p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew when their second wave hit last August. The city was able to bring the spread under control, but that may have been due to other public health restrictions, including the closure of schools.

A study out of France last November suggested the country's nation-wide curfew might have been effective in slowing the infection rate among people over 60. 

That same study suggested the subsequent lockdown in France was more effective than the curfew in curbing the infection rate among younger age groups. 

The researchers acknowledged it was not a controlled experiment and results therefore only showed correlation, and not cause-and-effect. 

"There is no data about the effectiveness of the curfew, but we do know that the key to success stopping the virus and its transmission is to minimize social contact," said Dr. Roxane Borgès Da Silva, a public health professor at Université de Montréal.

She is hopeful that an earlier curfew could discourage people from meeting. 

"Since we decided as a society to keep our young people in school as long as possible, since we know that the workers who can are working from home, the only moment when we can have gatherings and meet people is in the evenings." 

For some, evening walks have become their one source of reprieve in the pandemic. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Simon Bacon, professor in behavioural science at Concordia University, is concerned the earlier curfew may frustrate Quebecers and make them less likely to follow public health regulations. 

The government, he said, has done a poor job of explaining its reasoning and risks losing the confidence of the public.

"What was the trigger point? Nobody understands and because you don't understand you get frustrated," said Bacon. 

"There is a sort of counterproductive element to this that we have to be really careful of." 

Ontario as cautionary tale

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and an assistant professor at McGill University, said Quebec should be looking to Ontario as a cautionary tale, and tightening measures right away instead of waiting for things to get worse. 

On Friday, Ontario reported 4,227 news cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,400 people in hospital — the second highest single-day total of cases reported since the start of the pandemic. 

A pair of feet in a hospital bed
A patient cleared of COVID-19 transmission risk is pictured inside the intensive care unit (ICU) at Scarborough Health Network’s Centenary Hospital, in north-east Toronto. Some experts fear Montreal could see a similar surge in hospitalizations if more isn't done soon. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

To Oughton, the curfew is an easy way for the Quebec government to send a message to the general public, but it's not enough to stop a similar situation from happening here. 

"If you're waiting for a hard indicator, for example, waiting to see the number of hospitalizations sharply increase or waiting for the number of ICU beds occupied to start to go up, by the time you see those indicators … you're already well-behind."

With files from Sharon Yonan-Renold, Antoni Nerestant and Sarah Leavitt