Quebec's new social gathering curbs risk dragging on as COVID-19 cases rise

FILE PHOTO: Chairs are stacked outside a bistro in Montreal

By Allison Lampert

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Government crackdowns on social gatherings in parts of Quebec, Canada's epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, could drag on longer in hotspots like bars and restaurants, public health experts warned, as COVID-19 hospitalizations have kept rising.

The province reported 1,078 new cases on Thursday, accounting for about 60% of Canada's daily tally, and Quebec Premier Francois Legault urged Quebecers to stay home this long weekend when Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving holiday on Monday.

"I will not go to see my mother this weekend," Legault told reporters in Quebec City.

Quebec, Canada's second-most populous province, has shuttered gyms, bars, restaurant dining rooms and banned gatherings in homes for most of October in hotspots like Montreal, as the spread of infection by young adults has driven daily cases above the 1,000 mark.

Schools and businesses remain open across the province.

Public health experts say Montreal bars would likely remain shut beyond the end of the month. Gyms, bars and coffee shops remained among the most likely spots for community transmission of COVID-19, according to a U.S. Center of Disease Control (CDC) study.

"I don't think we'll see bars opening anytime soon," said Benoit Mâsse, a professor at the Université de Montréal's school of public health.

Outbreaks during the spring hit nursing homes and the elderly, but cases among younger Quebecers are mounting, resulting in fewer deaths, but raising fears of the virus spreading to the more vulnerable.

Convincing young adults to practice social distancing and treat the virus as a serious risk will be critical with hospitalizations more than doubling over the last two weeks, Legault said.

"We're going to be in this game of tightening and loosening restrictions for the months to come," David Buckeridge, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University’s school of population and global health said.

Halloween, a popular festival with children, could become the latest casualty with public health authorities now weighing the safety of trick or treating.

Legault's government has faced pushback from thousands of protesters holding demonstrations to denounce the restrictions, such as mandatory mask use in indoor public places. Some showed support for U.S. President Donald Trump and the QAnon conspiracy theory movement.

According to a recent poll by Léger and the non-Association for Canadian Studies (ACS), one in four Quebecers say they will reduce visits with family and friends in their homes but not stop outright, with adults aged 18 to 24 the least likely to fully follow the government's directive.

ACS President Jack Jedwab said respondents don't believe they are violating Legault's order barring guests if they have occasional visits.

The way they see it, he said: "I'm obeying him but I'm making a couple of exceptions."

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by David Gregorio)