Quebec's provincial parks await green light from public health to reopen

Quebec's provincial parks network has no immediate plans to reopen, even though retail stores have already opened outside the Montreal area.

SEPAQ plans for eventual reopening with new restrictions in place

The Parc National du Bic, outside Rimouski, is among SEPAQ's 24 parks across the province. (Julia Page/CBC)

Quebec's provincial parks network has no immediate plans to reopen, even though retail stores have already opened outside the Montreal area.

Simon Boivin, a spokesperson for SEPAQ, says he recognizes the importance for mental and physical health, but he says nothing can move forward without safety measures in place and the go-ahead from public health experts.

"Of course, everyone here is passionate about outdoor activities and making people discover the territory, but we do understand at the same time that there is a priority here and it has to be addressed first and foremost," Boivin said. 

Boivin said SEPAQ is preparing for different possible scenarios, and trying to determine which activities and services will be allowed while respecting physical distancing and sanitation rules. 

Parks Canada has also closed its parks until at least May 31, saying on its website it is "following the advice of public health experts" in support of the federal government's effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The environmental group Nature Québec has asked the government to reopen the SEPAQ's 24 parks. 

Alice-Anne Simard, the group's executive director, argued opening larger provincial parks will take some of the pressure off urban green spaces, where it is more difficult to stay at least two metres apart from others.

"It is hard to understand why people can go shopping today in shops almost everywhere in Quebec, when they cannot go hiking on a trail in a national park where physical distance is much easier," she said.

The Jacques-Cartier National Park, 30 minutes by car from Quebec City, is a popular weekend destination. (SANDRA LALANCETTE/RADIO-CANADA)

Nature Québec is also reminding the government of the positive impact the great outdoors can have on mental health, after months of confinement.

The hiking association Rando Québec said that push to reopen is premature. Technical director Nicholas Bergeron said it is "misleading" to think it is easy to reopen parks just because they are outdoors.

"If everybody goes at the same place, at the same time, it might increase the risk of transmitting COVID-19," Bergeron said.

Need for guidelines 

Trails and lookout points are often narrow, he pointed out, making it difficult for people who cross paths to stay two metres apart.

That is why Rando Québec is currently working with different partners, including SEPAQ, to come up with clear guidelines for both regional and provincial parks.

Bergeron also warns against opening only SEPAQ parks, which would bring even more hikers to one single location.

"It was an issue before COVID-19, that people rush in to the same trails," he said. "We have to make sure we are not exposing people to injury or being in contact with other risks, for example if people start going off-trail to avoid each other."

A spokesperson for Quebec Minister of Tourism Caroline Proulx said in a statement that the government is still working on a plan for tourist attractions.

"The reopening of different sectors of the economy, including tourism, remain the prerogative of public health," the spokesperson said.

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