MONTREAL – There was a semblance of normality in Montreal.
Couples hunched over steaks and poutines in the neighborhood’s famous bistros. Young people flock to comedy shows and CrossFit classes in the parks. The shopping sprees, even if armed with masks and disinfectants.
But this week the sense that normal life was gradually returning was reversed when Quebec, faced with a resurgence of coronavirus cases, became the first province in Canada to reintroduce severe closure measures – including the closure of restaurants, cinemas and theaters and the ban on home visits to friends or family, with some exceptions.
The alarm has also rocked Ontario, where some cities are publishing record case numbers again and some new and modest restrictions have been imposed, including closing strip bars and banning alcohol sales after 11pm.
Epidemiologists have attributed the growing number of cases to inadequate contact traceability; a reluctance to close schools and businesses; and people let their guard down. For example, the karaoke bar, Bar Kirouac, in Quebec City, has been linked to 72 cases of Covid-19, according to Quebec health officials.
The fallout underscored how Canada, a country with universal health care and a generally disciplined and rule-bound population, also remains vulnerable to coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Ottawa, the national capital, reported 105 cases, the highest number of new cases in a day since the pandemic began. It now has the largest number of active cases since the end of April.
Quebec, Canada’s epicenter during the pandemic, reported 750 new cases on Monday, helping to bring the total number in the province to 73,450. In total, 5,833 people died in Quebec; the whole country saw 9,289 deaths.
Canadians have until recently felt some satisfaction with the country’s approach to containing the virus. Most provinces moved quickly in March to close schools and businesses. The border with the United States has been closed and some provinces have restricted travelers from other parts of Canada, a restriction still in place.
By the spring and summer, many of these measures were significantly relaxed in most parts of the country.
In contrast to the hard-hit United States, where President Trump has repeatedly clashed with governors over how to handle the pandemic, partisan and regional grievances in Canada have largely been shelved.
Without exception, political leaders have also referred to doctors, scientists and public health experts to inform the country’s approach.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was recently hit by the scandal, he was generally credited for his authoritative handling of the pandemic. At first, he set the example when he became the first leader of a major industrialized country to go into solitary confinement, when his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for the virus.
Since then, his government has offered billions of dollars in financial support to businesses and workers affected by the virus to limit economic damage.
But David Buckeridge, assistant professor and researcher on public health surveillance at McGill University in Montreal, said the provincial government in Quebec did not act fast enough this time around.
“There is so much pressure to keep the economy going that the government has been a bit slow to take decisive action and shut down businesses,” Professor Buckeridge said. He said some types of businesses such as bars should never have reopened.
He also said that although Mr. Legault blamed the increase in cases on private social gatherings, the province’s poor record in contact tracing made it impossible to confirm it. Legault’s analysis, he suggested, may be motivated by economic rather than medical considerations.
Health officials and epidemiologists said Quebec’s party culture helped make it the pandemic troublemaker, compared to other provinces like British Columbia and those on Canada’s Atlantic coast, where the number of cases per capita was significantly lower.
Speaking Sunday night on a popular TV show, “Tout le monde en parle”, said Quebec Minister of Health Christian Dubé, “We like to party.”
In Montreal, the parks in recent weeks have hosted dense groups of young people who have attended show nights or have sunbathed. With the arrival of winter and with the usual city diet of summer festivals canceled due to the pandemic, there was a particular desire to have fun. Authorities say private parties in underground homes also helped fuel the outbreak.
In Quebec, revelers enjoy imitating Celine Dion, a native daughter, during karaoke nights. But earlier this month, after the outbreak a Bar Kirouac in Quebec City, health authorities have suspended karaoke nights across the province.
They noted that the projection of respiratory droplets when people sing and the sharing of microphones had made the singing nights potentially deadly.
Under the new Quebec rules, which take effect Thursday, people will be prohibited from inviting guests into the home, except for people requiring a carer, childcare, or maintenance services. Museums, bars and libraries will be closed. Churches, synagogues and mosques will be limited to 25 people.
People who congregate outside should also stay within two meters, or about 6.6 feet, of each other. However, schools, which have been affected by dozens of coronavirus cases, will remain open, as will gyms, hotels and hairdressers.
The new restrictions will be imposed for 28 days and will apply to three regions of Quebec, including Montreal.
In Ontario last weekend, a group of mostly young drivers flocked to a resort community and commandeered its roads for illegal racing. Most of the crowd members wore no masks or withdrew socially. Overwhelmed, the police sealed off the city.
On Tuesday, Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, said he will introduce orders that exclude visitors from long-term care homes in three of the province’s most populous regions.
The resurgence of cases has disproportionately affected young people, a change from the early days of the pandemic. Dr. David N. Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto From the Lana School of Public Health, said it may not only be the result of irresponsible behavior but other factors, including the opening of college dormitories and the fact that young people work in shops and restaurants.
“There aren’t many 60-year-old bartenders and waiters here,” he said, saying blaming the new epidemics of social gatherings and irresponsible youth “has become an escape route for the government in terms of any business restrictions.”
Dr Buckeridge said Quebec’s new measures will take weeks to have an effect on infection rates and that the province will likely have to go further.
“There will be some 28-day periods unless we change what we’re doing in a meaningful way,” he said.