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Green dots are placed in the schoolyard to help students keep distance as schools outside the greater Montreal region begin to reopen, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. on May 11, 2020.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

As the gradual reopening of Quebec accelerated Monday at a pace far quicker than in parts of Canada with much greater control over COVID-19 outbreaks, a persistent question comes up inside and outside Quebec: What is Premier François Legault’s hurry?

Schools and daycares opened outside the Montreal region Monday as construction and factory workers went back to work across the province, bucking more cautious plans across Canada. A week or two will have to pass before officials begin to know the disease impact of the relaunch of about half the province’s population.

Mr. Legault says he is trying to balance disease control with other health determinants such as economic deprivation, social isolation and children’s education. Quebec Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda has backed the Premier unequivocally.

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But other Canadian premiers also speak of a balancing act to explain their slower relaunch pace, in provinces with far lower rates of infection. Their chief scientists also back them.

Quebec should not be heading back to school

Provinces face big backlogs as they resume elective operations

Mr. Legault, a onetime entrepreneur who made millions founding Air Transat, came to office 18 months ago with a clear mission to raise Quebec’s standard of living to match that of Ontario. He takes pride in decisiveness. Managing a comatose economy while waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine or cure for most of his remaining mandate goes against his political mission and leadership style.

When Mr. Legault announced his plan to reopen schools and business through May, he spared a thought for the province’s entrepreneurs: “People who know me know how I love entrepreneurs. They are creative people who take risks, who lead the parade,” Mr. Legault said at the news conference at the end of April. “We will do everything we can to help you through this.”

Mr. Legault has led the parade, benefiting from an unusually high level of political capital.

His aggressive shutdown of the province at the outbreak’s outset, combined with a reassuring message delivered with the charismatic Dr. Arruda, left him with an unheard-of approval rating of 91 per cent. “I’ve never seen anything like that in 36 years of polling,” pollster Jean-Marc Léger said.

A poll published by his firm Leger on April 28, the day Mr. Legault revealed his relaunch plan, found 49 per cent of Quebeckers were ready to get back to normal, provided the health system and elderly and vulnerable people were secure. Support for a return to normal with those conditions in Ontario was 24 per cent.

Support for Mr. Legault and getting back to work have since declined in Quebec. The most recent Leger poll published Tuesday showed Mr. Legault’s personal approval descended to 77 per cent, putting him in line with premiers with more normal-but-positive approval ratings.

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Sixty-one per cent of Quebeckers said the province should maintain the status quo on opening up the province, while 25 per cent said it should slow down. Only 13 per cent think reopening should accelerate. The Quebec result on slowing down was nearly identical to the national point of view.

“As the decision to open up gets more concrete, people will get less satisfied,” Mr. Léger said. “In Quebec, solidarity builds quickly and is quite strong when we are struck by crisis, but it doesn’t last.”

Persistent bad news helps explain increasing hesitation among Quebeckers to return to work and school.

The province announced 85 deaths on Monday, bringing the total to 3,013. The aim from the start of the shutdown two months ago was to bend the disease-growth curve downward. The rate of growth of new cases and deaths have indeed flattened, but deaths have persistently stuck to an average of 95 a day since April 13.

Meanwhile, the province’s public health research institute published projections last Friday that showed even slightly lifting restrictions, particularly in Montreal, could quickly increase cases and deaths in the city, and put the rest of the province in danger.

Two construction workers wearing protective shields are seen at work, in Brossard, Que. on May 11, 2020. Major construction sites are opening in Quebec following a two-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Mr. Legault is adamant he would delay opening stores and schools in Montreal for a third time without better results. “The situation is not under control in Montreal at the moment,” he said Monday. “We will push it back beyond May 25 if it doesn’t improve.”

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Quebec’s epidemic is taking place in three distinct areas. Montreal-area nursing and retirement homes have had the vast majority of deaths. Smaller, growing community outbreaks have started in poor Montreal neighbourhoods. The rest of Quebec is tranquil – Dr. Arruda called it “paradise” – with a few dozen cases in some regions, and none at all in others. Of the 85 deaths announced Monday, 82 of them were in the Montreal region.

This has put new pressure on Mr. Legault. In recent days, pundits and small-town mayors have called for isolating Montreal so the rest of Quebec can get on with life.

Mr. Legault has opened stores, construction, manufacturing, elementary schools and daycares outside the greater Montreal region, but has declined to close routes from the city. “We’re all in the same boat,” Mr. Legault said, while not ruling out he might isolate Montreal down the road, if necessary.

The Leger-Canadian Press poll published Tuesday of 1,526 Canadians was conducted on the internet from May 8 to 10. It would have had a margin of error of 3.09 per cent, if it had been conducted with a probability sample.

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