As it unveiled more details about its curfew, the Quebec government acknowledged that its latest pandemic measure mainly targets private social gatherings, which have proven hard to curb because of legal restrictions.
While medical experts agree that the curfew can’t hurt the fight against COVID-19, they said it is far from clear how much it will help.
The provincewide night curfew, a first in Canada, will make it easier for police to spot people intent on illicit get-togethers, Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said Thursday.
“For those who still like to gather with friends, the ballgame just became a lot more difficult.”
Ms. Guilbault said the onus is on people intercepted by officers to justify their presence outdoors during the curfew hours between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.
That obligation is justified, said Pierre Thibault, assistant dean of the civil law section of the University of Ottawa. “It is not a criminal act … the burden of proof is not as steep.”
He added that the curfew could sustain court challenges because it is limited in application and can be argued to be necessary during a crisis. “It is not a disproportionate breach to individual rights.”
The curfew is the upshot of a debate the government faced in the fall as it dropped the idea of allowing police to enter private homes without warrants to enforce the ban on social gatherings, Laval University law professor Patrick Taillon said.
“The other option was entering without a warrant. It’s a worse solution for individual rights than a curfew with a lot of exemptions,” Prof. Taillon said.
While restrictions on certain kinds of retail shopping and on bars and restaurants will remain in place, public-health experts questioned whether a crackdown on citizens’ social lives alone would have the necessary impact on infections.
“We have to ask ourselves how many contacts we’re really reducing,” said Benoît Mâsse, a professor of public health at the University of Montreal.
A curfew alone is unlikely to prevent get-togethers between recalcitrant Quebeckers, he argued. (The evidence is unclear because most jurisdictions have paired the policy with other strict lockdown measures, he added.) Closing parts of the economy, meanwhile, would have a tangible impact on the number of face-to-face interactions happening in the province.
“I would prefer measures where we’re sure it’ll reduce contacts,” Dr. Mâsse said. “It’s very marginal cuts in contact they’re trying to achieve through social gatherings … that’s the gamble.”
As Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said Thursday, there is little research to show how well a curfew works in a pandemic. A November study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour found restrictions on movement are among the more effective public-health measures to combat virus spread, but many of them were already in place in Quebec. The province closed restaurants, bars and most entertainment and recreation, and banned social gatherings in October.
The study also suggested school closings are among the more effective measures for limiting the spread of the virus. Quebec plans to reopen classrooms, starting with elementary grades next week.
The fall’s restrictions had lost their effect by the Christmas holidays when a poll showed about half of the province’s population had visits, Roxane Borgès Da Silva, a University of Montreal public-health professor, said. “When a significant part of the population admits they didn’t follow the government’s measures, you have to start looking for new ways to encourage individual responsibility.”
She was among about 80 experts who called for a hard and short lockdown over the holiday period to take advantage of the school break and stop case growth. “It was a missed opportunity,” she said.
Karl Weiss, chief of infectious diseases at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said France’s curfew came with many of the measures Quebec already had in place. “The problem with a curfew is there are always confounding factors in place so there’s no real medical studies of the value of it. If Quebec is alone with a curfew, the other provinces may be the placebo group to know how effective it is.”
Dr. Weiss added he’s seen an uptick recently in sexually transmitted diseases at his clinic, suggesting more young Quebeckers have been flouting the fall social-contact rules.
In a strategy to control and manage the pandemic as Quebec has pursued, every measure can contribute, according to David Buckeridge, an epidemiologist at McGill University. “There is some evidence from theory and observational studies that a curfew could limit contacts and transmission,” he said. “Until we have enough vaccines in people’s arms, we need a mix of these things to have an effect.”
Dr. Buckeridge added there’s one problem with more severe restrictions: “You often see a resurgence once you remove them. So you have to have a larger strategy, too. What is that strategy here?”
Exemptions to the curfew include those whose jobs require them to be out of the house after 8 p.m. and people walking their dogs within a one-kilometre radius of their home. Ms. Guilbault emphasized that women and children escaping domestic violence should not feel limited by the curfew.
Provincial data indicate that nearly half of the active COVID-19 outbreaks in Quebec started in workplaces, and elder care homes and schools accounted for much of the other outbreaks.
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