Allison Hanes: Red alert might have been avoided with earlier action

It's a storm that has been building on the horizon for weeks — months even. We saw it coming a mile away. Yet we seem to have drifted directly into danger, despite all the early warning signals peeling madly.

Visitors in Old Montreal are few and far between on St-Paul St. on Monday Sept. 28, 2020.

Last spring, Quebec Premier François Legault and national director of public health Dr. Horacio Arruda were asked repeatedly why it was that Quebec — and more precisely Montreal — had become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.

It was just bad luck, they said over and over. Quebec’s spring break fell the first week of March when many people travelled, bringing the novel coronavirus back here from parts unknown. Notwithstanding the lacklustre plans for handling all thosereturning holidayers or the breach in the defences at long-term care homes that caused scores of seniors to suffer and die from the virus, there is a ring of truth to the unfortunate-timing argument.

But what’s the excuse now, as the dreadedsecond wave swamps us? It’s a storm that has been building on the horizon for weeks — months even. We saw it coming a mile away. Yet we seem to have drifted directly into danger, despite all the early warning signals peeling madly.

The alert levels have changed colour from green, to yellow, to orangeto now red faster than the fall leaves. Legault, Arruda and Health Minister Christian Dubé have been begging and pleading with Quebecers to rein in their social lives because COVID-19 is running rampant and spreading through community transmission, largely at private gatherings. They have coaxed, encouraged and cajoled people to change their behaviour, but they have been reluctant to clamp down in any meaningful way.

It’s like pointing out the fire alarm is going off, but not bothering to evacuate the building.

The result is a sustained surge in new cases over the weekend: 698 on Saturday; 896 Sunday; and 750 Monday. Instead of holding down that curve, we’ve let it rise over the last month until we need a hammer to pound it back flat.

Emerging from his own period of isolation after being exposed to infected Conservative leader Erin O’Toole two weeks ago, Legault announced some “difficult decisions” in order to regain control Monday.  Three regions — greater Montreal, Quebec City and Chaudière-Appalaches — have been thrust into the red, or high-alert level. This means shutting down bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, libraries, museums and concert halls for 28 days, effective midnight Oct. 1. Gyms, hair salons and stores are spared. Private gatherings — both indoors and out — are forbidden, cancelling Thanksgiving (although if we’re good, maybe we still have a shot at Halloween). And all protesters are heretofore required to wear face coverings, sticking it to those anti-mask demonstrators who have been causing havoc.

This sloppy, inconsistent approach caused some Quebecers to start cherrypicking which, if any, preventative measures they felt like following. People started hearing what they wanted to hear or figuring the rules didn’t apply to them. Quebecers were once the most cooperative in North America at social distancing, according to Google data from last spring. Now we’re now leading the country in new cases — and non-compliance. Somewhere along the way the government lost people, with mixed messages and half-hearted measures.

The consequences of this belated crackdown will be devastating for Montreal, for restaurant and bar owners and for workers already in precarious positions who face job losses.

Too little, too late now, will be too much to bear for too many.

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The objectives are laudable: to keep schools open for children and teens; to preserve the health system, which is prone to being overwhelmed; and to save lives. Even if a large proportion of the current contagion is coming from young adults less prone to severe symptoms, they can easily pass it on to the more vulnerable.

But why didn’t the Legault government get tougher earlier? Why were they so hesitant to get a handle on things before they outright lost control?

After the deconfinement began late last spring, they were too worried about being the bad guy to revoke hard-earned freedoms. They got too smug about the prognosis, with Dubé congratulating Quebecers on a job well done little more than a month ago. They put the economic recovery ahead of education initially, allowing the good times to roll and an unsurprising uptick in new COVID-19 cases late in the summer to go unchecked. They hummed and hawed over doing the blatantly obvious, taking 10 days after an outbreak at a Quebec City karaoke bar to ban the virus-spreading pastime. They have been too afraid to try to neutralize the growing segment of yahoos that just don’t give a damn or are actively rebelling against public health directives. And they’ve used a one-size-fits-all approach to messaging that sows confusion and doesn’t manage to reach key target audiences.

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