Edmundston region facing uncertainty as end of 'circuit-breaker' restrictions nears
Hundreds of residents are self-isolating; virus has spread south to Grand Falls area
Residents of northwestern New Brunswick are waiting to see what will come next following a rapid spike in cases that quickly pushed the area back to tighter restrictions.
The Edmundston and upper Madawaska regions have been under the red phase since Thursday night as part of a four-day "circuit breaker."
About 3,000 residents turned out on Thursday and Friday for mass testing as health officials tried to determine how broadly the virus has spread, including the variant first reported in the U.K.
Haut-Madawaska Mayor Jean-Pierre Ouellet is one of many in self-isolation after being identified as a close contact of a positive case. He has tested negative and is not experiencing any symptoms.
"They had outbreaks in schools, at work, different places," he said. "I would say there are hundreds of people who have been asked by Public Health to stay in self-isolation."
Ouellet said there have been several confirmed cases and close contacts in his large rural community. The municipality is composed of several villages in the province's northwestern panhandle, including Clair, Baker Brook, Saint-François and Saint-Hilaire.
Volunteer firefighters in the Haut-Madawaska area are self-isolating after being in close contact with cases.
New Brunswick's hardest hit region
Eric Marquis, Edmundston's interim mayor, said people are worried and waiting for mass testing results.
"We need to take a step back and see why our region has been hit this hard to try and find rapid solutions," he said.
Public Health has also confirmed community spread of COVID-19 in the Edmundston area and announced possible public exposure at shops, restaurants, a grocery store and a hockey arena.
Five cases have been confirmed at the École Régionale Saint-Basile, which remains closed until April 7.
About 80 per cent of New Brunswick's active cases are in Zone 4.
The Edmundston area has been New Brunswick's hardest hit region during the COVID-19 pandemic. The area was placed under lockdown for more than a month earlier this year and has experienced large outbreaks inside long-term care homes.
The western and southern areas of Zone 4 have remained under the yellow phase, along with the rest of the province. This includes Kedgwick, Saint-Quentin, Grand Falls and Saint-Léonard.
As the end of the four-day "circuit-breaker" nears on Monday, residents of the region are waiting to hear if restrictions will be modified.
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said last week the duration of the red phase and the area under the restrictions could be tweaked as needed.
Public Health said Sunday it was still "collecting data" before providing an update.
Ouellet said he's urging citizens to be vigilant in getting tested and sticking to their single-household bubble to limit the spread of COVID-19. He expects the red phase to continue for part of this week.
The Haut-Madawaska mayor was supposed to receive his first dose of the vaccine on Monday, but can't go to the appointment because of self-isolation.
Marquis said the numbers reported over the weekend are a sign the situation may be stabilizing, but he's still waiting to see recent test results. Five new cases were announced in the area on Sunday.
"We still have hundreds of people that are going each day to the two testing sites," he said.
Liberal MLA Jean-Claude D'Amours, who represents Edmundston-Madawaska Centre, is calling on the government to release more details on results as people wait in self-isolation.
Public Health has not provided a breakdown of results from Thursday and Friday at the Saint-Basile arena, where rapid testing was used.
"We've received little to no specific information about mass testing in the Madawaska region," D'Amours told Radio-Canada.
Spread to Grand Falls area
The red phase is limited to the Edmundston area, leaving other parts of Zone 4 in the less-restrictive yellow phase. But there's signs COVID-19 is spreading beyond those boundaries.
Potential public exposure to the virus has been reported at businesses in Grand Falls, about 40 minutes south in Victoria County.
Mayor Marcel Deschênes said the two areas have close ties with many people travelling for work.
He said an Edmundston resident, who works in Grand Falls, went snowmobiling with friends who had tested positive for the virus. The individual infected a few people in the area by going to work.
"There is a spread, it's not widely spread in Grand Falls. But with the variant it seems that it moves quite fast," Deschênes said.
An elementary school in Drummond, a village just a few minutes south of the community, confirmed a positive case on Friday night.
École Mgr-Lang has notified the families and staff and is moving to distance learning until April 7.
Deschênes said communities in Zone 4, including Kedgwick and Saint-Quentin, had advocated for Edmundston alone to be placed under the tighter measures.
"There's a lot of testing going on and people are really following the protocols from public health," he said.
Businesses under pressure
The Edmundston region is once again grappling with restrictions on businesses operations.
At least four restaurants have also been forced to close their doors as employees self-isolate. The local movie theatre, Cinéma V, planned to reopen its doors this week until the uptick in cases.
Cathy Pelletier, the executive director of the Edmundston Regional Chamber of Commerce, said some businesses began to close voluntarily early last week.
"We were anxious to see what was going to happen because the numbers didn't stop going up," she said.
Under the red phase. restaurants must switch to takeout only, while gyms, barbers and hairstylists are required to close.
Businesses in the area were struggling to stay afloat after weeks of lockdown restrictions.
Pelletier said the sudden move within hours to the red phase was "harsh" and upsetting for restaurants with reservations or personal service businesses with appointments.
"It comes down to a frustration and anger and it's getting hard to deal with," she said.
With files from Radio-Canada