People wear face masks as they walk in the Old Port in Montreal, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. Quebecers out in the street after 8 p.m. tonight can expect to be questioned by police as a month-long curfew comes into effect to control the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Heavy police presence expected across Quebec as 8 p.m. curfew starts tonight

MONTREAL — A curfew set to take effect across Quebec on Saturday is necessary to prevent the health care system from reaching a tipping point that could leave the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients without necessary care, the province’s premier warned as he called for compliance with the new measure.

Francois Legault issued a Facebook post exhorting the province’s residents to respect the new rules, which could see most residents facing police questions or stiff fines if they’re out on the streets between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Legault said the curfew was needed to prevent gatherings that have fueled the spread of the virus.

“As premier, my first duty is to protect Quebecers,” Legault wrote in the post. “I consider that the situation is critical and a shock treatment is needed. Our hospitals are filling with COVID-19 patients. Hundreds of people are in intensive care, fighting for their lives. Tens of people die every day.”

The province announced earlier this week that the curfew will apply to all Quebec residents except for those who fall into certain exempted categories, such as essential workers.

Legault described the step as a “shock treatment” necessary to discourage mass gatherings he said contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

Deputy Premier Genevieve Guilbault said in a tweet that the province will send out an emergency alert on Saturday afternoon to remind Quebecers of the curfew, and that police will be more visible on the streets over the weekend.

The curfew comes as Quebec’s COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise and hospitals say they’re filling up and risk becoming overwhelmed.

It will last at least four weeks, until Feb. 8, and violators could face fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.

Legault said the province is approaching a “tipping point” where it will not be possible to care for the most urgent cases. While vaccination is progressing, he said, it will be weeks before those most at risk have been inoculated.

“We need a collective effort, from everyone, for one month. We must in particular protect people 65 and older who are the most vulnerable. Our battle is coming to an end, and like in a long marathon, it is the last kilometres that are the hardest.”

Some public health experts have said they believe the curfew will help to reduce people’s contacts and send a message about the seriousness of the pandemic.

But others have questioned whether the measure will be effective, and have expressed concerns it will lead to excessive ticketing of people who are vulnerable or homeless.

Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said this week that while he can’t provide proof the curfew will work, it’s part of a series of measures aimed at reducing the possibility of gatherings and of contact between people. “There’s no science that can tell you what measure will have what percentage effect,” he told reporters.

Under the rules, grocery stores and convenience stores will have to close at 7:30 p.m. in order to allow workers and customers to get home. Stores connected to gas stations can stay open to serve essential workers.

The province has also shut down places of worship for all but small funerals, tightened mask-wearing rules for schools, and has extended the closure of non-essential businesses until at least Feb. 8.

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