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Police expected to use judgment when enforcing Quebec curfew: minister

MONTREAL — Quebec's public security minister said she doesn't expect the province's upcoming curfew to have a major impact on people who are following the rules.
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MONTREAL — Quebec's public security minister said she doesn't expect the province's upcoming curfew to have a major impact on people who are following the rules.

"For most of you who respect the health orders, this will not change your lives a lot, but for those who still like to gather with friends, the ball game just became way more difficult," Genevieve Guilbault told reporters Thursday.

She warned that Quebecers who are outdoors during the curfew should be prepared to prove to police that they have a legitimate reason for leaving home. "This is the basic concept of the curfew: you shouldn't be outside of your home and if you are, you have to be ready to explain why," she said. 

The curfew, which goes into effect Saturday evening, will prohibit Quebecers from being on the street between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. It will last at least four weeks, until Feb. 8. Fines for curfew violators will range from $1,000 to $6,000.

At a press conference announcing the measure Wednesday, the government blamed private gatherings for the recent rise in the number of new COVID-19 cases, without providing data. 

People who want to gather in private homes will have to leave before 8 p.m., stay until 5 a.m., or risk being stopped by police, Guilbault said. "It will be a lot more complicated for people to go in another person's house in the evening or the night."

There will be exceptions for people travelling to and from work and for essential workers, she said. Pharmacies can stay open past 8 p.m. and restaurants will be permitted to continue delivering food after the curfew.

And while people can walk their dogs after 8 p.m. — within one kilometre of home — people will not be allowed to leave their property to smoke a cigarette or to exercise, Guilbault said. 

It will be the responsibility of anyone caught outside past curfew to explain themselves to police, she said, adding that employers are encouraged to issue permission letters to employees who need to be out late.

Police will have to use their judgment, Guilbault said. "I am confident they will apply the rules with a lot of judgment and efficiency."

Asked how the government will ensure racialized minorities aren't disproportionately targeted by police enforcing the curfew, Guilbault said the law will apply to everyone equally and that steps had been taken to fight racial profiling by Quebec officers. 

A 2019 study commissioned by Montreal found that Black and Indigenous people were four to five times more likely to be stopped by city police than were white people.

While there will be no specific exception for homeless people, Guilbault said she wants police to be "tolerant."

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for Quebec's second-largest opposition party, Quebec solidaire, said the government hasn't demonstrated there is scientific justification for the curfew. 

"To restrict the liberty of individuals so much, you have to have excellent reasons," he said in a statement. "For transparency, we are asking the premier to release the advice from public health that justifies the imposition of a curfew."

Manuel Dionne, Legault's director of communications, shot back on Twitter, saying a curfew was based on "a recommendation from public health. Period." Dionne also suggested Nadeau-Dubois was flirting with conspiracy theories.

Marie Montpetit, health critic for Quebec's Official Opposition, said if the curfew isn't coupled with more testing — particularly of asymptomatic people — and with improved contact tracing and more vaccinations, she said she worries it won't work.

"Once again, we're asking a lot of Quebecers," she said in an interview Thursday. The measures announced last night "apply to citizens but we're still waiting to find out how the government itself will participate in the war effort." 

She said she's concerned Quebec isn't vaccinating people fast enough, adding that the province is behind its own schedule. Health officials said they administered 9,960 doses of vaccine Wednesday, for a total of 48,632.

And while Legault has blamed Ottawa for not sending the province enough doses, Montpetit said Quebec has doses available that it hasn't given out. 

Quebec reported 2,519 new COVID-19 infections Thursday and 74 more deaths attributed to the virus, including 16 that occurred in the past 24 hours. Officials said hospitalizations dropped by 13, to 1,380, and 202 people were in intensive care, the same number as the prior day. 

Earlier in the day, a government-mandated health-care think tank warned there is a real risk the Montreal region will run out of dedicated hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients with the next three weeks. Quebec has reported 220,518 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 8,562 deaths linked to the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press