Bye bye curfew, hello terrasses: 5 things to know about Quebec's reopening

Not only will Quebecers be allowed out after dark for the first time since Jan. 9, they will be able to eat and drink on restaurant patios and welcome friends in their backyards. Here's an overview of what's changing, and what challenges remain.

Midnight walks, dining out on patios, backyard barbecues among newly permitted activities

Lawrence L’Oisselle, left, and Eric Deschamps enjoy a restaurant meal as they re-open outdoor dining for the first time since last September in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Quebec is undoing several of the most drastic measures it put in place to deal with the pandemic, starting today by lifting the curfew.

Not only will Quebecers now be allowed out after 9:30 p.m. for the first time since Jan. 9, they will also be able to eat and drink on restaurant terrasses — the province's fabled patios for dining — and welcome friends and family in their backyards.

More restrictions are scheduled to be lifted in the days and weeks to come. Here's an overview of what's changing, and what challenges remain.

1) Things are opening up, but not everything (yet)

Starting today:

  • The curfew is lifted across the province.
  • Eating on patios and decks outside of restaurants is allowed.
  • Outdoor gatherings of up to eight people on private property will be permitted.
  • Travel between regions of Quebec will be permitted.
  • Up to 2,500 people in a large theatre or arena will be allowed with assigned seating and measures in place. (Including at the Bell Centre for Game 6 of the Habs-Leafs series on Saturday.)

Gatherings on private balconies are also allowed, but since physical distancing is required, squeezing in eight people won't be possible in a lot of cases.

Indoor private gatherings are still prohibited.

A man walks past a closed patio on Sept. 30, 2020, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Many regions will see additional restrictions lifted May 31 as they move from a red zone, the highest level of alert, to an orange zone.

Montreal, Laval and a few other regions will have to wait a little longer to make that shift. That means no working out at the gym or indoor dining at restaurants, for now.

The Quebec-Ontario border also remains closed to non-essential travel, as does the international border with the United States.

Premier François Legault has set June 7 as the target for that next round of changes, but Dr. Mylène Drouin, Montreal's public health director, was reluctant to commit to a date in her update on Wednesday.

(The province has posted its timeline for reopening here.)

2) Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all down

Across Quebec, hospitalizations related to COVID-19 dropped below 400 this week for the first time since Oct. 7, and fewer than 100 people are in intensive care.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases is 465 and, critically, the reproductive number is below one, meaning each infected person is, on average, infecting fewer than one other person.

Perhaps most importantly, the number of deaths has dropped steadily as more and more Quebecers get vaccinated.

As recently as late January, Quebec was still registering around 50 deaths per day from COVID-19. That dropped to around 15 per day in mid-February, and is now about to drop below five.

Sept. 11, 2020 was the last time that Quebec recorded no COVID-19 deaths in a 24-hour period.

3) There are still outbreaks, even outside

While those numbers are promising, COVID-19 outbreaks continue to occur — and Drouin has repeatedly expressed concerns that a superspreader event could change things in the city.

According to the latest data for Montreal, there are 216 active outbreaks, most of them in workplaces and schools. Nine of those outbreaks have been linked to parks — evidence that, while less likely, it's still possible to transmit the virus outdoors.

A man and boy walk into the Bill-Durnan COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal on Monday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

At her news conference on Wednesday, Drouin urged the public to follow public health guidelines, indoors and out.

"Even though we are outside and the risk is lower, we have to maintain distancing and, of course, do not share glasses, cigarettes or whatever, food, with friends or people that are not in your family," Drouin said.

4) Vaccination rate is climbing, and more vaccines are coming

Quebec is leading all provinces in its vaccination campaign, with more than 56 per cent of the population having received one dose.

More vaccines are expected to arrive next month, allowing the province to move up appointments for second doses (more details on that are coming in early June).

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Thousands of teens, who are already eligible to book an appointment, are also being vaccinated through the school system.

The vaccination pace among people in their 40s, though, has slowed considerably in Montreal, and is cause for some concern from authorities.

Experts have cautioned that there are still risks in reopening under the current circumstances, given that much of the population still hasn't had a single vaccine and only four per cent are fully vaccinated.

The province's public health research institute, the INSPQ, released its latest projections on Friday.

They show that a drop in adherence to public health rules could lead to an increase in the daily caseload, and that situation could be even worse if there's not sufficient vaccination coverage in all age groups.

5) The future is promising, but there are some unknowns

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, has sounded an optimistic tone at recent briefings on COVID-19.

"Vaccinated in May, and then freedom, with caution, but freedom and hope for the summer," he said.

But experts say a big question hovering over the reopening in Quebec, and beyond, is the potential threat of new variants that can evade the vaccines.

People wear face masks as they walk through the Atwater Market in Montreal on Monday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

For now, the available vaccines have proven largely effective against existing variants of concern, but with the virus still circulating widely in other parts of the world there is a threat of new, more dangerous mutations.

"We've got to get second doses out, because that will really help immunity against those emerging variants and we may have to get boosters out," Prof. Caroline Colijn, an infectious diseases modeller at Simon Fraser University, told CBC recently.

"We really do need the population to understand that they may not need second doses immediately before they ever eat in a restaurant again, but they need them ... for getting back to normal life."

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