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Quebec Premier Francois Legault listens to a question during a news conference in Montreal, on Jan. 6, 2021.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Quebec has become the first province in Canada to impose an extensive curfew in an attempt to tamp down the impact of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The curfew is part of a four-week expansion of lockdown measures made necessary by the rising number of new cases, especially in home settings, Premier François Legault told reporters Wednesday.

“The situation is critical, dire. ... We have to announce today a shock treatment,” he said.

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Mr. Legault and Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda acknowledged that, despite workplace outbreaks, some industries such as agri-business and meatpacking can’t be shut down.

“Many activities in manufacturing are essential activities,” the Premier said. He added that the majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are over 65 and would have been infected at home.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the province will be placed under a curfew starting Saturday as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Quebeckers could be fined up to $6,000 if they're found on the street between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. The Canadian Press

Dr. Arruda could not cite studies about the efficacy of curfews but said the virus has been transmitted through social contacts and Quebeckers are becoming less careful with mask usage and physical distancing.

“The curfew sends a signal and it enables us to cut down on activities and possibilities of contact. … At some point we have to take steps that together will decrease the likelihood of gatherings and contacts.”

Civil liberty fears mount over Quebec’s provincewide COVID-19 curfew

Lockdown measures, which initially were to end next Monday, will be extended another four weeks, to Feb. 8.

In addition, during those four weeks there will be a curfew, beginning Saturday. Quebeckers will have to remain home from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. unless they are essential workers.

Stores would have to close at 7:30 p.m. to enable employees to return home. People contravening the curfew are liable to fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.

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The curfew is unlikely to lead to big changes in urban hot spots, where bars and restaurants have been closed since October and most private get-togethers between households have also been banned for months, said Benoît Mâsse, a professor of public health at the University of Montreal.

The government’s goal is likelier to shock people into observing the rules, he noted, with a show of seriousness. “It could be a psychological move, to say … ‘The games are over.’”

Primary schools will reopen on Jan. 11 as scheduled but there will be additional safety measures, such as the use of masks in hallways for all students, and in the classroom for grades 5 and 6.

The return to in-class learning for high schoolers will be delayed one week, to Jan. 18, and the government will distribute two masks each day to all students and staff for use indoors.

Sylvain Mallette, president of the FAE teachers’ union, said extending the winter break in favour of online classes wasn’t “desirable” because students are already falling behind because of pandemic disruptions in the school year. But he added that teachers will accept the move if it helps break the province’s out-of-control wave of infections.

He called on the Premier and fellow Quebeckers to join schools in making sacrifices to curb the pandemic. “We can’t be the only ones to do it,” Mr. Mallette said. “There’s a collective effort that has to be made.”

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In neighbouring Ontario, where infections have also surged, Premier Doug Ford said he would discuss with the Chief Medical Officer about whether more stringent measures are needed. When asked on Wednesday about Quebec’s curfew, Mr. Ford said: “I’m going to have a conversation with Premier Legault tonight and have a good chat with him. ... We’ll be making that decision over the next few days.”

During the first wave in Quebec, the disease killed thousands of elderly residents in long-term care facilities. The government has since hired more staff and revamped the management of LTC homes. However, during the second wave, the virus spread mainly in workplaces and in the community.

Quebec announced 2,641 new cases on Wednesday. Since Christmas, the seven-day moving average of confirmed new cases has remained at more than 2,500 infections. Earlier in the fall, Mr. Legault and Health Minister Christian Dubé had said they didn’t foresee easing off on restrictions while the tally of daily new cases stayed above 1,000.

The curfew will be challenging for retailers operating as essential services, such as groceries, pharmacies and hardware stores, said Marc Fortin, president of the Quebec branch of the Retail Council of Canada. “It’s going to create a bottleneck. They’ll have fewer hours to serve the same number of clients when we are trying to have as few people in stores as possible.”

He said retailers are hoping that, with other workplaces being shut down or moving online, shoppers will be able to avoid rushing to stores before curfew hours.

Employees who work at night to restock shelves, sanitize stores and prepare deliveries, are expected to get an exemption from the curfew, Mr. Fortin said. The government will also allow retailers to provide curbside pickups, an option that was not available in Quebec until now.

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The pain of a provincewide curfew will be real, said Dr. Mâsse, the public-health expert, but it might be made more tolerable by the steady rollout of the province’s vaccination effort. As long-term care residents and other elderly Quebeckers are vaccinated, hospitalizations and deaths should decline sharply, which could allow for an easing up of public-health measures by the spring.

The curfew is an “enormous effort we’ll have to make,” Dr. Mâsse said, “but it’s probably our last.”

Public Safety Minister Geneviève Guilbault will address later this week how police will enforce the new rules and Education Minister Jean-François Roberge will unveil more details about the measures in schools.

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