Quebec's regions rejoice as COVID-19 restrictions loosened

Public health measures will be relaxed in six regions — the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands, the Lower Saint Lawrence, the Saguenay, the Abitibi, the North Shore, and Northern Quebec — starting Feb. 8.

Province pushes curfew to 9:30 p.m. in orange zones, allows restaurants and gyms to reopen in some places

A shopper walks down the street in Rimouski, which will be in an orange zone starting Feb. 8. (Simon Rail-Laplante/Radio-Canada)

Residents in several regions of the province are celebrating the fact COVID-19 restrictions will be a little looser starting next week. 

Premier Francois Legault announced six of the province's regions — the Gaspe and the Magdalen Islands, the Lower Saint Lawrence, the Saguenay, the Abitibi, the North Shore, and Northern Quebec — will be downgraded from red to orange zones on the Quebec's colour-coded alert map beginning Feb. 8.

Local politicians and other civic leaders in several of those regions had been calling on the province to offer some slack, arguing prolonged measures are having a pronounced negative effect on residents and pointing out that in some places there is no apparent community spread of the virus. 

In the Gaspé, for example, there have been no new COVID-19 cases reported in the last two days. Similarly, the North Shore reported zero new cases Feb. 1, and only one on Jan. 31. 

Rimouski Mayor Marc Parent said he's thrilled at the news. 

"I think this is the best decision the government could have taken," he said, adding people in the region have been "extremely respectful" of the restrictions, but they're starting to take a toll on morale. 

"There was a great demand for the government to respect the reality of regions," Parent said. "What is announced is perfect for the business community, it's perfect for the population."

But Parent would still like to see the province go further. He said he would have preferred checkpoints be put in place to prevent people from travelling east from Quebec City and into the Lower Saint Lawrence. 

He said inter-regional travel will have to be "closely scrutinized" by the government. 

Rimouski mayor Marc Parent said he's glad to see the province is loosening COVID-19 restrictions in some regions, while keeping a curfew in place to prevent illegal gatherings. (Radio-Canada)

In the meantime, he's glad the curfew has been pushed back, but that it's still in place, hopefully cutting down on illegal social gatherings. 

Further east, on the Magdalen Islands, MNA Joël Arseneau has been pushing for weeks for a regionally tailored approach to the province's restrictions. 

But he said he finds the changes announced Tuesday confusing. Despite his happiness at the archipelago going from red to orange, he said the new orange zone parameters are different from those in place before the holidays. 

"I'm sure some of the population on the islands will still wonder why they're under very strict rules when things are going fine," he said. 

Arseneau said there has not been any community spread of COVID-19 on the Magdalen Islands — all the cases have come from somewhere else.

He said the new orange zones are in a waiting game, and it's unclear what criteria they'll need to meet to go back down to yellow. That would mean being able to meet in small groups, play team sports, or perhaps eliminate the curfew.

Some still hoping for a bubble

In the last couple weeks, some officials in Eastern Quebec have also been floating the idea of a regional COVID-19 bubble. 

Matane-Matapédia MNA Pascal Berubé first proposed the idea, explaining a bubble could include roadblocks preventing people from travelling east of La Pocatière, a measure Parent and Arseneau both support. 

Arseneau said an Eastern Quebec bubble would help keep the virus out of regions where there are very few cases, and it would give residents more freedom to get back to a semblance of pre-pandemic normal. 

"Basically whatever gain Quebec has made in protecting the population of some of the regions, we have to make sure it remains," Arseneau said. 

New orange zone rules

Across Quebec businesses, hair salons, and museums will be allowed to reopen their doors starting next week. 

And in the six new orange zones, restaurants, gyms, and indoor sports are also getting the go-ahead. The provincial curfew is also being pushed back 90 minutes, to 9:30 p.m.

That's great news for Lyne Harvey, who owns La Cache d'Amélie restaurant, in Baie-Comeau, on the North Shore.

She said as soon as Legault made the announcement, her phone started ringing off the hook. 

"I took maybe 15 reservations [right away]," she said. "I wasn't even able to watch the whole press conference." 

"We have our customers from a long time ago, so I think they're happy," she said. 

Harvey said she's glad to be able to reopen right before Valentine's Day, traditionally one of her busiest nights of the year.

But she said the curfew, despite getting pushed back, will still present a challenge because her restaurant would typically still be serving patrons until 11 p.m. 

Legault said it's up to the regional directors of health, in concert with Quebec's provincial public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda, to figure out whether a region stays red or gets bumped down to orange.

With files from Julia Page

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