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Quebec Justice Minister Sonia Lebel announces the reopening of courthouses during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, May 28, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City. Quebec Premier Francois Legault, left, looks on.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s courthouses will gradually reopen beginning Monday following weeks of pandemic-induced shutdowns, Justice Minister Sonia LeBel announced Thursday.

Courtrooms will have reduced seating capacity in order to conform to physical distancing requirements, she said, adding that Plexiglas has been installed inside the rooms to protect clerks and judges.

The justice system had been operating in a limited way throughout the pandemic, with about 126 “virtual courtrooms” holding judicial proceedings, LeBel explained. She said the pandemic accelerated the justice system’s digital transformation, with the increased use of remote court proceedings and software to sign and distribute documents electronically.

“The system will not go back to the way it was,” she told reporters in Quebec City, without offering specifics.

Quebec reported 74 additional COVID-19 deaths Thursday, bringing the provincial total to 4,302. There were 563 new cases of the virus confirmed in the past 24 hours for a total of 49,702 since the pandemic began.

Also Thursday, Quebec’s public health institute released projections on the evolution of the virus in the province, with a focus on the greater Montreal area – the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada.

Researcher Marc Brisson said if Montrealers have a “strong” adherence to public health directives, 50 per cent of his models project a gradual reduction in the number of hospitalizations and deaths until August. But 50 per cent of his models also predicted a slow increase in hospitalizations and deaths – even if most Montrealers followed the rules.

A strong adherence to public health directives, Brisson explained, means having between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of people doing such things as keeping a proper distance from others and wearing a mask in public. It also means public health authorities are able to isolate between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of symptomatic COVID-19 cases.

If, however, fewer than 40 per cent of Montrealers follow public health directives, and only between 60 per cent and 75 per cent of symptomatic cases are isolated, then the models predict a significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths by August.

The models predict that in worst-case scenarios, there could be more than 500 hospitalizations and more than 150 deaths per day by mid-summer.

The trends across the province and in the greater Montreal area nonetheless positive, Brisson said. Hospitalizations and deaths attributed to COVID-19 are dropping across Quebec, even in Montreal.

That positivity was backed up by Premier Francois Legault, who told reporters earlier in the day, “transmission in the community is (going down) and things are going well outside seniors residences.”

But the situation remains dire within seniors homes, which accounted for 70 of the 74 new deaths recorded Thursday.

Quebec has about 2,600 facilities for seniors, including private residences and long-term care homes, and there is at least one resident infected with COVID-19 in 340 of them, Legault said. More than 2,700 people in those centres are currently infected with the virus.

Forty-one long-term care homes have a minimum of 15 per cent of residents infected with COVID-19, “and it’s those that we are focusing on particularly closely,” the premier said.

More than 1,000 soldiers are deployed in 25 of the province’s hardest-hit long-term care homes. The military released a report on the observations of its soldiers in those homes on Wednesday. It detailed three main problems inside Quebec’s long-term care homes: improper separation between areas with COVID-19 infections and those without; failure to properly wear personal protective equipment, or PPE; and severe staffing shortages.

Legault said his government is launching advertising campaigns next week with the goal of recruiting 10,000 people to work as orderlies in the province’s long-term care homes by mid-September.

But outside the seniors residences, the infection rate is decreasing. The number of daily new cases of COVID-19 in Montreal, for instance, has been decreasing for a week.

Legault said another piece of good news is that the province’s hospitals have 173 fewer COVID-19 patients than they did a week ago. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 declined by 47 Thursday, the ninth straight day of reductions.

Six fewer people were in intensive care, for a total of 178, and 15,618 people are classified as having recovered from the disease.

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