After weeks of being closed, restaurants, theatres and cinemas will soon be allowed to reopen in Quebec.
The Quebec government announced a loosening of several restrictions Tuesday, as hospitalizations slowly begin to come down from all-time pandemic highs.
Restaurants will once again be allowed to reopen at half capacity as of Monday, Jan. 31. Up to four people from four different addresses or a maximum of two family bubbles will be allowed to share a table. However, restaurants will have to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. and will have to close at midnight.
The same numbers will apply to indoor private gatherings, which will be allowed as of next Monday after being banned since New Year's Eve, when the government introduced sudden, sweeping restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
During the news conference, the premier said hospitalizations in the province were slowly going down, and there are reasons to believe they will continue to do so in the coming days.
"The idea is to go gradually," Legault said when describing the loosened restrictions.
"I understand that people are fed up, but we need to take a prudent approach."
Youth sports will also get a breath of fresh air
As of Jan. 31, all extracurricular sports will be permitted in elementary schools, high schools, CEGEPs and universities. Participants over the age of 13 will have to show their vaccine passport.
Organized sports outside of school will be allowed only for Quebecers under the age of 18. A maximum of 25 participants will be allowed. Practices will be permitted but competitive matches are still on hold.
The Montreal Botanical Garden, the Biodôme, the Planetarium as well as cafeterias in ski chalets will also be allowed to reopen at 50 per cent capacity next Monday.
They all require a vaccination passport for access.
Martin Vezina, who speaks for Quebec's restaurant association, welcomed the government's announcement.
"We need to have a date, now we have it," he said. "It's a six-day notice. It will be tough but it's manageable."
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Movies, plays, worship
Cinemas and theatres will also be allowed to reopen as of Feb. 7 — a week after restaurants — though also at half capacity, with a maximum of 500 people per room.
That limit also applies to the Bell Centre, despite the fact that it's large amphitheatre.
Places of worship are also allowed to reopen as of Feb. 7 but, with a few exceptions, they must be at half capacity, with a maximum of 250 people. Vaccination passports will be required for entry.
A maximum of 50 people will be allowed for funerals, though the proof of vaccination will not be mandatory for "humanitarian reasons," the premier said.
The premier acknowledged that he does not want to "play yo-yo" with restaurants, and that he wants to keep them and other businesses open without having to once again resort to closures.
"Unless something really unexpected happens," he said.
Legault also said the province is exploring ways to increase hospital capacity "to be able to better live with the virus in the coming months and coming years."
'Hard to know' if time is right to ease restrictions: expert
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, was skeptical about the province's plan to ease restrictions.
"It's hard to know," said Vinh when speaking with CBC News prior to the premier's news conference.
He said the province would need to show data to prove to Quebecers it is safe to ease restrictions, given that the number of people in hospital is about 3,300.
"Right now, we haven't achieved a peak. We are at a plateau," Vinh said, adding that he is worried new hospital admissions could outpace the number of COVID-19 patients being discharged, further straining the health network.
On Tuesday, Health Minister Christian Dubé said the newest projections — that have not yet been shared publicly —will show that the number of people in hospital could drop to about 2,500 over the next two weeks.
Dubé said the growing vaccination rate, especially among at-risk populations, as well as what he called a "stability" with health-care resources, allowed the government to ease restrictions and give a small boost Quebecers' mental health.
About 1,000 bureaucrats have agreed to work in health-care facilities. The province's public health network is short about 12,000 workers.
Timeline to reopen gyms, bars still unclear
Gyms and bars will still have to wait. No date for reopening them has been put forward, with officials saying the situation in the province's hospitals is still too critical.
In an open letter released Tuesday, the Nouvelle Association des Bars du Québec, which represents bar owners in the province, asked interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau to allow them to reopen a week from Friday, on Feb. 11.
That date would allow bar owners "to restock adequately and call back the personnel necessary" to reopen, the letter read.
On Tuesday, Legault mentioned gyms and spas when talking about the next step of the reopening plan.
"Public Health tells us that it will come in a third phase [of the reopening]," said Legault regarding gyms and spas.
"As soon as we are able to get more certainty regarding the situation in hospitals."
The premier did not mention bars in his opening statement.
The Quebec government also did not provide a timeline for when the vaccine passport will be expanded to require three doses. The premier has said in the past it would happen only once everyone has had the opportunity to get their third dose. Currently, all adults are eligible.
The passport is currently required to access non-essential services such as restaurants and cinemas, in addition to larger retailers and the province's government-run liquor store, the SAQ. It is not required for grocery stores or pharmacies.