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People wear masks as they walk past closed storefronts downtown, March 18, 2021, in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec imposed its strictest lockdown in nearly a year on two regions in the province as COVID-19 variants suddenly spin out of control, while Ontario was expected to announce new province-wide restrictions to temper the third wave of the pandemic.

The Quebec City region and Gatineau will close schools, restaurants, non-essential stores and services and other public venues Thursday. The province tightened a curfew to force people home by 8 p.m. and restricted religious gatherings to 25 people, down from 250, in the areas.

Less than 24 hours earlier, government officials including Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said there was no need to panic and that the province could absorb many more cases. Premier François Legault said earlier this week that Quebec had the third wave under control.

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Even as the rollout of vaccines gains momentum, premiers across the country are imposing or considering new measures. British Columbia recorded more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a single-day record in the province. Earlier this week, it closed indoor restaurant dining and the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a new provincewide lockdown or other changes to Ontario’s colour-coded levels of pandemic rules. Ontario had recently loosened limits for its grey zones and other regions, allowing some businesses to open. Hospitals in the province reported 421 patients in their intensive-care units – the highest number since the pandemic began – and infections continue to climb.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault is moving three cities, including the provincial capital, into lockdown effective Thursday following a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections. Schools and non-essential businesses will close and the curfew will move ahead to 8 p.m. from 9:30 p.m. in Quebec City, Levis and Gatineau for at least 10 days. The Canadian Press

As of Wednesday evening, the government was expected to announce on Thursday what it will call a “shutdown” for the entire province beginning Saturday, which includes moving restaurants to takeout and delivery only, closing indoor fitness and limiting capacity in stores, according to three sources.

The restrictions are similar to those currently in place in Toronto and Peel, although patios had recently been allowed to open. The sources were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations. Schools are still expected to break for a week in April and resume in-person classes.

In a few days, new cases in Quebec City doubled to 193, while a sudden rise in Gatineau tested hospital capacity. Both cities had restrictions lifted just three weeks ago because things were going well. In the province, the B.1.1.7 variant has nearly overtaken the original strain. Most restrictions remained in place in Montreal, where new cases have stayed relatively stable.

Students in the locked-down regions will participate in online learning next week.

“The situation is critical and deteriorating” in the two areas, Mr. Legault said. “People have to stay home unless absolutely necessary. With the variants, we can see an explosion of cases within a few days.”

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Trouble in Quebec City took off this week after an outbreak at a gym owned by one of the province’s most vocal opponents of lockdown measures. By Wednesday, Méga Fitness Gym was the source of 68 cases and outbreaks in eight other businesses. The owner, Daniel Marino, could not be reached amid reports he was among the sick.

“Bravo champion. Everyone has nice biceps but now people are sick,” said Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume.

“We have completely lost control,” Mr. Labeaume said of his city. “We’ve gone from a situation that was worrisome to one that is very dangerous.”

In Ontario, Mr. Ford urged residents to avoid gatherings over the Easter weekend and to follow public-health guidelines.

“I’m very, very concerned to see the cases go up. I’m very concerned to see the ICU capacity,” Mr. Ford said. “And we all have to be vigilant.”

The province is also releasing new modelling Thursday expected to paint a dire picture about the rise in more contagious and deadlier variants, which now make up 67 per cent of Ontario’s infections. The province’s overall situation is more serious than Quebec’s, where hospital admissions and intensive-care cases remain stable.

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Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases physician in Toronto who sits on Ontario’s vaccination task force, said he supports more restrictions but that outdoor activities should be encouraged as much as possible.

“I’m not a fan of lockdowns, I think they cause harm, they are obviously detrimental to mental health and economic health,” he said, adding that with the health system on the brink of being overwhelmed, the government has few other options. “It stinks but sadly it works.”

He also said there needs to be sufficient screening, safety measures and paid sick leave for those in high-risk occupations.

“Reopening occurred too quickly. The vaccine rollout was never going to be fast enough to prevent a third wave, and here we are,” Dr. Bogoch said.

Ontario’s opposition party leaders called for an immediate “circuit-breaker” lockdown and accused the government of taking too long to intervene, echoing their criticisms of Mr. Ford last year when he put off lockdown measures until after Christmas.

“We’ve seen this really horrible movie before. We saw it before Christmas. We’ve seen repeated dithering, we’ve seen repeated delays,” Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said.

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Meanwhile, Toronto has asked the province to lower the vaccine eligibility age to 60 at city-run clinics, after it has had problems getting enough takers for all available time slots. Officials said there were still 12,000 vaccination appointments available for the coming days, spots currently only open to those 70 and older.

Mayor John Tory said he talked to Mr. Ford twice on Wednesday about the issue and that the Premier supports the move. Mr. Tory also pleaded with residents not to gather this weekend with anyone other than people in their own household, warning that irresponsible behaviour in the next few days could mean restrictions that last the entire summer.

“Better days are ahead. We can get our lives back if we don’t screw this up,” Mr. Tory said.

With reports from Jeff Gray and Oliver Moore

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