MONTREAL — Quebec will allow private sector employees to head back to the office in an effort to revitalize the struggling downtown cores of the province's largest cities.
Labour Minister Jean Boulet told a news conference Wednesday businesses can bring back up to a quarter of their employees to the office starting Saturday. The province is strongly recommending, however, people continue working remotely if possible.
Boulet said remote working is difficult for some people, while for others, in-person interactions are necessary.
"It's also a question of economic vitality for a downtown, particularly in Montreal, to allow people to return to work in their offices, as long as it is done in a safe way and in compliance with the sanitary guidelines," Boulet said.
Mask-wearing will be mandatory where physical distancing is not possible, such as in elevators and common areas.
Dr. Richard Masse of Quebec's public health department said he was confident allowing workers back is safe to do, despite a recent rise in the daily number of COVID infections in Montreal.
"We are really sure that opening the services in downtown Montreal is something that is safe, that can be done and it's not something that creates a risk," Masse said. Authorities can lock down specific parts of cities if outbreaks occur, rather than reconfining the entire province, he added.
"We're going to focus on places where transmission happens, but there are other measures that apply across the board," he said. Employees who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, he said, should not go to work or frequent public places.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said the city could use the infusion of workers.
"It's been difficult for downtown Montreal, which lives on students and workers," Plante said. "We don't want other outbreaks, we want to minimize the risks, but we also need to help those that are in great difficulty at this moment."
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business welcomed the decision, saying the future survival of many businesses depends on workers heading back to the office.
"This is a first step towards the profitability of businesses whose income depends mainly on the high traffic of businesspeople, tourists, conventioneers, festival-goers and students," the organization said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Quebec reported three new COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, for a total of 5,636. The province also reported 129 new cases of the novel coronavirus, for a total of 56,859, of which 26,097 are considered recovered.
The number of people in hospital went down by 10 patients compared with the prior day, for a total of 285, including 20 patients in intensive care, a reduction of one.
Public health authorities said Wednesday they are trying to increase testing capacity in Montreal after they requested over the weekend that anyone who had visited or worked in a bar since July 1 get tested for COVID-19.
Montreal public health reported Tuesday it had identified at least 30 confirmed cases tied to nine different bars in the city.
Masse said the public health department is trying to test 200 people per hour at Montreal's Hotel-Dieu hospital, where a walk-in clinic has been inundated. "It takes some time to mobilize human resources moved elsewhere in the health system," Masse said.
Plante called the situation unacceptable.
"We were the epicentre. I do not want to relive that, and clearly Montrealers don't want to either," Plante said. "To see people waiting in line for hours to get a test, I see people who are responsible, who take it seriously, so we have to make it easier for them."
She says the city is ready to help with mobile testing centres and has asked if other sites could be opened.
On Monday, the last day for which data is available, the province performed 9,952 tests.
Premier Francois Legault said the province has the capacity to "easily" conduct up to 16,000 tests per day, but the resources are not in the right spots, and he is expecting adjustments in the coming days.
With the province's annual construction holiday beginning Saturday, Legault stressed the importance of wearing masks, even in regions that have been largely spared by COVID-19, like the one he visited on Wednesday. As of Saturday, masks will be mandatory in all indoor public spaces.
After meeting with health authorities in the Lower St-Lawrence, Legault noted that in 35 of the 36 bars in the region visited by inspectors last week, staff were not wearing proper protective equipment.
"We saw 129 cases today in Quebec, an increase in the number of cases compared to last week," Legault told reporters in Riviere-du-Loup, Que. "We must absolutely have more discipline in bars."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2020.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press