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A pedestrian crosses Saint-Catherine street during a snowstorm in Montreal, on Feb. 2, 2021.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Quebec is reopening non-essential stores but maintaining a nighttime curfew provincewide as public-health officials and Premier François Legault bet vaccines will arrive before new variants can provoke a next COVID-19 wave.

The province will also allow gyms and restaurants to reopen with restrictions and shorten the curfew in six northern and eastern regions of the province where new daily cases have dropped to single digits. The other 90 per cent of the population in southern areas, including Montreal and Quebec City, will stay under more restrictions.

The changes will take effect Feb. 8 – one month after new cases started declining in the province from a high of 2,882 to about 1,250 cases per day in the past week. Hospitalizations have also declined about 28 per cent from January highs that saw the province delay thousands of surgeries and prepare a triage protocol to decide who could be denied intensive care units.

“It’s a bit of a gamble but everything in life is a gamble,” said Karl Weiss, the head of the infectious diseases division at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. Despite the arrival of new variants – eight cases of the British variant have been found in Quebec – Dr. Weiss said the risk is probably worthwhile. New international travel restrictions, the rapid decline in cases and the discipline of Quebeckers help reduce potential harm from new variants, he said.

“It’s a fine balance, but I think at this stage we can certainly try to give people some air to reduce the economic, societal, health and mental-health impact.”

Across the province, stores, personal-care services such as hairdressers and museums will reopen with distancing and limited crowds. Universities and colleges will be encouraged to organize classes so students can go in-person once a week. Limited group outdoor recreational activities can resume.

In the six eastern and northern regions, cinemas, theatres and gyms can reopen, with restrictions such as masks and crowd limits.

Mr. Legault called the partial reopening a “calculated risk” to give business owners some breathing room. The curfew will remain across the province (starting 90 minutes later at 9:30 p.m. in the zones with lighter restrictions) because it is “the most efficient measure” for preventing people from gathering socially, he said.

The province’s curfew forced Quebeckers to leave their homes earlier in the day but didn’t have a dramatic impact on their mobility over all, according to anonymized mobile-phone tracking data analyzed by Environics Analytics for The Globe and Mail.

The number of Quebeckers whose cellphones travelled more than 500 metres from their home postal code between 9 p.m. and midnight at least once a week fell by 30 per cent after the curfew took effect on Jan. 9.

In the week of Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, the data show that 691,335 Quebeckers left their homes, cellphones in hand, at least once between 9 p.m. and midnight. The following week, after the curfew, that figure dropped to 481,348. It ticked up slightly to 500,694 the week after.

The number of Quebeckers out and about between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. also dropped after the curfew kicked in. But the data showed that rather than going out less over all, Quebeckers more often left their homes earlier in the day, especially from 6 a.m. to noon.

“We’re actually seeing that mobility has increased in those other time periods since the curfew,” said Vito De Filippis, director of business development for Environics, the marketing and analytical services company that crunched the numbers.

The most pronounced change in Quebeckers’ overall mobility came after Christmas, not the curfew. The number of Quebeckers who left home with their cellphones at least once fell 10 per cent to 3.8 million in the postholiday week of Dec. 28 to Jan. 3, down from just more than 4.2 million the week of Dec. 21 to Dec. 27.

By the week of Jan. 18 to Jan. 24, the most recent week for which Environics has data, Quebeckers’ overall mobility was back near Christmas week levels, but lower than in the rest of December and November.

Mr. Legault said the curfew is working as planned. “It looks like quite a drastic measure,” he said. “But during the day people can go to the store, to work, go to school. At night is when you have activities in houses. It’s quite a drastic measure but a very efficient measure.”

While Mr. Legault said the curfew discourages people older than 65, the highest-risk population, from visiting, Dr. Weiss said it makes the greatest difference on young adults who face little health risk but spread the virus.

“It’s about controlling the younger population going out at night or late in the evening,” Dr. Weiss said. “You don’t need a big chunk of the population circulating together to keep the fire alive.”

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