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Quebec Premier François Legault grabs his notes at the end of a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 23, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Hundreds of thousands of Quebec workers will go back to factories, construction sites and stores over three weeks in May under an economic relaunch plan the province’s top public health official acknowledged was “a risky bet.”

Premier François Legault, flanked on Tuesday by Quebec Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda, announced the province’s economy will start to reopen on May 4, and should get about 457,000 of the 1.2 million Quebeckers currently off the job back to work by the end of May.

Dr. Arruda said the consequences of the relaunch are unpredictable, but promised to closely monitor the spread of the coronavirus and the impact on hospitals. While he declined to set a benchmark, Dr. Arruda said the province will change course if hospitals get too busy or if too many people die.

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“I hope not too many people will die. But make no mistake, the virus is here, and it is here for a long time,” Dr. Arruda said. “We know it’s a risky bet. But we can’t eliminate this virus. It will circulate. The question is, ‘How do we balance everything?’ The economy, money, mental health. … It isn’t just infectious diseases that are determinants of health.”

Quebec’s aggressive pace contrasted starkly with those of other provinces, including Ontario, which this week said it would wait for a decline in cases of COVID-19 before dates are set.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the provinces, including Quebec, released a joint statement on Tuesday saying they had agreed to a co-ordinated and gradual approach to lifting restrictions, while recognizing each province might move at a different speed to account for "special circumstances.”

Quebec, the hardest-hit province, announced 83 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total to 1,682, and 775 new cases, raising the total of current cases to 18,234. Most of Quebec’s outbreak is now in long-term care homes. Mr. Legault said the situation is stable outside the homes.

Mr. Legault said workplaces will have to follow distancing and cleanliness rules. People will still be required to observe distancing as well as bans on gatherings outside work and school.

On May 4, stores with exterior-opening doors will be allowed to open outside the Montreal region, and in the city one week later. Shopping centres, bars, sit-down restaurants and services such as hair salons will remain closed.

On May 11, factories throughout Quebec can open with limits on how many workers can be on the floor at a time. Those restrictions could be lifted as early as May 25.

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Within an hour of the announcement, Bombardier Inc. said it will bring back 11,000 workers to resume production of private jets on May 11 with the assistance of the federal wage subsidy program.

Construction will relaunch completely on May 11.

Business and labour groups applauded the return, although the unions cautioned that health and safety will be difficult to manage.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said governments should help cover the cost of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other health supplies for small retailers. Most want to reopen, but must ensure their customers stay healthy, said François Vincent, the group’s Quebec vice-president.

“Small businesses don’t have the economy of scale” to bulk-buy PPE, he said. He worries for the non-retailers that will remain closed: “If you still have bills to pay, it’s difficult to see how you can survive this.”

Daniel Boyer, head of Quebec’s largest labour federation, the FTQ, stressed the importance of protective measures. “We see this as positive, but a lot of workers are worried. Success depends on protecting health and safety,” he said. “There can be no compromise on things like hand-washing stations or two metres of space.”

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Guy Cormier, chief executive officer of the financial services company Desjardins Group, said the government has taken “a measured approach.” Desjardins plans to keep most of its 47,000 employees, 85 per cent to 90 per cent of whom are working remotely, at home for now. It will decide case by case which employees to bring back sooner.

Some business owners left out of the reopening appeared to take the news in stride.

Montreal-based eyewear retailer BonLook has 35 stores, including 14 in Quebec. Nearly all are in malls. Under the guidelines, one store in a Montreal suburb can reopen.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I was a bit worried to hear [officials] say there won’t be any reopening of malls in the short term,” CEO Sophie Boulanger said. But, she added, “unfortunately for us, I think it’s the right decision.”

Andrew Oliver, whose Oliver & Bonacini chain of restaurants includes Bar George in Montreal, said it is important to prevent a second wave of infection that would cause another shutdown. “We need the governments to measure twice and cut once,” he said.

Many entrepreneurs fear they will never be able to reopen unless federal and provincial relief programs are strengthened soon – in particular, Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance.

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“My lease is up in two days and I don’t know what’s going on,” Montreal fashion designer Véronique Miljkovitch said.

Employment lawyers said businesses are responsible for their workers’ well-being and will need a plan.

“The return to work is happening in a context where it’s a calculated risk,” Montreal employment lawyer William Hlibchuk, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP, said. “It’s a question of balancing keeping people safe with returning to some kind of normal.”

Marc Barbeau, chairman of Stikeman Elliott LLP, said large players in construction and manufacturing are well-positioned to implement careful health and safety plans.

On Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford reiterated his plan, announced on Monday, is to wait for consistent decreases in infection rates over several weeks before an economic relaunch. But he said sector-specific guidelines could come later this week.

Quebec announced on Monday that daycares and elementary schools will open over a week starting May 11.

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Mr. Ford hesitated to comment on Quebec’s plans. “That’s going to be up to Premier Legault,” he said. "We don’t want to put our kids at risk. That’s really what it comes down to. I’m not going to put our children in the classroom, crowded classroom, I’m just not going to do it.”

Mr. Trudeau said Quebec’s school plan should depend on the latest data.

“It is natural that after a long time in isolation, we would want to see things move back towards normal,” he said. “At the same time, we know we have to be very, very careful.”

With reports from Christine Dobby, Laura Stone, Matt Lundy and James Bradshaw in Toronto, Robert Fife and Bill Curry in Ottawa

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