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Police stop and question a woman at the start of a curfew in Quebec on December 31, 2021.Peter Mccabe/The Canadian Press

New Year’s Eve has long been a big night for TV watching in Quebec. For more than 50 years, the annual Bye Bye sketch-comedy retrospective on Radio-Canada has drawn millions of viewers as they count down to midnight. In recent years, Bye Bye has been preceded by the year-end episode of Infoman, a satirical news show that combines the absurd with the ridiculous.

This year, Quebeckers had an additional reason for spending New Year’s Eve in front of the tube. Infoman’s 10 p.m. time slot coincided with the entry into force of another curfew across the province as Premier François Legault’s government scrambled to prevent skyrocketing Omicron infections from overwhelming Quebec’s ever-fragile health care system. Quebeckers had few options that did not involve ringing in the New Year at home on the couch.

As if they needed any reminding of that fact, the Legault government also saw to it that an emergency alert was sent out at 6:45 p.m. to every cellphone and television set in the province. “It is forbidden to be outside your home or property between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.,” Quebeckers were warned. “Police surveillance will be increased, and fines will be issued to violators.”

It is hard to imagine any other government in Canada, or North America, resorting to such a coercive measure and getting away with it – much less twice.

A year ago this week, Mr. Legault’s government imposed an 8 p.m. curfew across the province that lasted almost five months. Quebeckers largely supported the measure, at least initially, despite the government’s failure to provide any empirical evidence of the curfew’s effectiveness in reducing COVID-19 case counts. Many had their doubts but trusted Mr. Legault’s judgment.

Before resorting to another curfew, however, it might have been reasonable to expect that Mr. Legault’s government would have commissioned research to determine whether it worked the last time around – whether the benefits of a curfew in forcing a reduction in social contacts outweighed its costs in psychological distress and diminished personal freedom. Instead, Mr. Legault arrived empty-handed at his Dec. 30 news conference to announce the renewed curfew.

The Quebec Ministry of Health did issue a news release referencing three “observational” studies on the effects of curfews imposed in France and Jordan. None was particularly conclusive. A fourth study – prepared for Public Health Ontario, rather than Quebec’s own public health agency – relied on cellphone data showing a 31-per-cent reduction in nighttime mobility in Quebec compared with Ontario during the first two weeks of last year’s curfew. But the study could not draw a straight line between less activity at night and a decline in infections. Critics have pointed out that second-wave COVID-19 case counts peaked in Quebec before the first curfew was enacted and subsequently fell at the same rate as those in Ontario.

For Mr. Legault, a politician who likes to project the image of being in control of the situation, there is an irresistible element of drama in the curfew. Vincent Duclos, a communications expert and one of 13 academics who last week signed an open letter denouncing it, has referred to the policy as a mesure-spectacle, whose shock value alone ensures it gets people’s attention. It has the added benefit of drawing attention away from the government’s failure to address the pandemic in arguably more effective ways, such as expanding hospital capacity or improving ventilation in schools.

Until mid-December, a buoyant Mr. Legault was encouraging Quebeckers to celebrate Christmas in groups of as many as 25 people, implying that their sacrifices since the beginning of the pandemic had paid off. His tone changed suddenly on Dec. 16, when his government reduced the limit on household gatherings to 10 people, while cutting capacity limits for restaurants and bars. But even then, he suggested that further restrictions could be avoided. On Dec. 30, with a day’s notice, he banned indoor dining and drinking altogether and reimposed a curfew.

Such erratic decision-making might spell political trouble for any other politician. But Mr. Legault remains the most popular Quebec premier in living memory – so popular, in fact, that he joked during an interview with Infoman host Jean-René Dufort that was broadcast on New Year’s Eve that he wanted Quebeckers to “love me a bit less.” With recent polls showing that Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec could win more than 100 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats in October’s provincial election, up from 74 seats in 2018, the Premier quipped that managing a caucus that big would create too many problems for him.

Until Omicron struck, Quebeckers had largely approved of Mr. Legault’s handling of the pandemic. But the imposition of another curfew is testing their willingness to accept his orders unquestioningly. If he is not careful, they may even just begin to love him a little less.

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