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A pedestrian walks down a near empty Sainte-Catherine street in Montreal, on May 4, 2020. The Quebec government announced that the reopening of retail stores in the greater Montreal area will be delayed by a week, until the week of May 18th.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Quebec stores outside the Montreal region reopened Monday as the province began the first phase of its controversial relaunch plan, even while announcing a one-week delay for the city where COVID-19 continues to kill scores of people every day.

Premier François Legault said the situation in Quebec is under control, but Montreal lacks hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients to open stores and some other businesses by the original May 11 opening date. The Montreal region will now wait at least until May 18, but the ambitious plan to open elementary schools, daycares, stores, construction sites and factories over the next three weeks remains intact.

“We want to reopen stores in Montreal, but we know when we do we will have more cases in Montreal,” Mr. Legault said. “If we open things up a bit, we need to have a margin [in hospital capacity] we don’t see right now.”

COVID-19 has hit the province harder than other areas of the country, and Quebec’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, has called the fast-paced plan a calculated risk. Most other provinces are taking a more tentative approach.

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Quebec has 22,765 active COVID-19 cases and 2,280 deaths, but the rate of infection varies widely across the province. Almost 90 per cent of deaths have taken place in the Montreal region. Montreal has 804 cases per 100,000 people compared with 101 cases per 100,000 in the province outside the city and its suburbs. The number of people admitted to hospitals is still growing, with 1,772 people in the facilities, mostly in the Montreal region.

In Canada’s nine other provinces, which have fewer cases combined than Quebec, the COVID-19 outlook looked less daunting as businesses begin to reopen.

Ontario opened garden centres for curbside delivery Monday, along with landscapers, car washes and car dealerships (by appointment only). Premier Doug Ford said other businesses that could reopen for curbside pickup only would be released this week. The province also expanded its list of essential construction projects to include shipping, municipal projects, schools and daycares, as well as preparation for industrial work.

The Prairie provinces reopened medical services, such as dental and physiotherapy offices. Saskatchewan and Manitoba added some retail and low-risk recreational activities such as golfing. Manitoba also added campgrounds, restaurant patios and day camps to its approved list.

British Columbia will announce its relaunch plan Wednesday.

In Quebec, Anick Lessard went to the Aubainerie clothing store in Saint-Jérôme, 60 kilometres north of Montreal, to shop for her children, aged 16, 9 and 7. She pointed out that it was winter when the lockdown started. “I’m dressing the kids for spring and summer. I’ve shopped online but things like sandals and shoes don’t work as well,” Ms. Lessard said, adding that she felt safe with security measures in place.

Ms. Lessard stood in line for 25 minutes before entering the store, where she sanitized her hands at the store’s compulsory cleaning station. The change rooms were closed and extra security monitored the entrance, hand-sanitizing and physical distancing. Employees wore masks and cashiers stood behind plastic shields.

Store manager Caroline Provost said the lineup persisted all day. “It’s like a Boxing Day,” Ms. Provost said, adding that most customers seemed to be stocking up on children’s clothing. “There seems to be a lot of couples with small children," she said. “I’m not sure why one wouldn’t stay home with the baby. It’s a bit stressful for everyone, but everyone is respectful and it’s going well.”

Michel Kirallah, the owner of a shoe shop in Rimouski, 540 kilometres northeast of Montreal, was only allowing two customers in at a time. He and two employees were busy enough that he didn’t have time for lunch Monday. The region has the lowest infection rate in Quebec outside the far north. “We were actually happy with the lockdown because we managed to avoid the worst of the virus,” he said, describing the steady stream of customers Monday as “typical for a busy spring day.”

Not all Quebec businesses were rushing to open. Simons, the Quebec clothing store chain, has pushed back opening stores to May 19 out of caution.

Many other provinces, meanwhile, were still weighing options and watching Quebec.

Alberta set a target of May 14 for reopening a host of retail and personal service businesses, such as hairstyling, but it hinges on disease indicators to confirm they are trending in the right direction.

In British Columbia, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province has flattened the spread of the disease and new rules coming this week need to reflect that reality. B.C. has closed many non-essential businesses, restricted public gatherings to 50 people, limited travel and suspended classroom instruction at schools and universities.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, sounded caution about quick reopening. With new infections in Toronto doubling every seven days, along with rising hospital admissions and now 449 deaths, she said Toronto has likely not passed its infection peak.

“I know it is also difficult to see other cities starting to relax restrictions,” Dr. de Villa said. “We all want to get back to enjoying our city. The reality is that COVID-19 does not impact all communities in the same way.”

With reports from Laura Stone and Jeff Gray in Toronto and Ian Bailey and Mike Hager in Vancouver.

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