Tougher public health restrictions came into effect Monday in many parts of Canada as some regions continued to deal with rising COVID-19 case counts by the Omicron variant.
In Quebec, the province announced 4,571 COVID-19 infections — a new single day record.
Calling the situation “critical,” Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube announced new restrictions. Bars, movie theatres and entertainment venues were to close as of 5 p.m., while restaurants must operate at reduced capacity and close at 10 p.m.
Dube said the fast-spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant has changed everything, as vaccines that offered 70 per cent protection against symptomatic infection from the Delta variant are believed to offer 30 per cent protection against Omicron.
In the United States, federal officials said Omicron has become the dominant variant, accounting for 73 per cent of new infections last week.
New capacity restrictions are also in place in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
B.C. has limited capacity to 50 per cent at venues that hold more than 1,000 people, including those that hold sporting events, theatre performances and music concerts.
Newfoundland and Labrador has limited bars to 50 per cent capacity and restaurants to 75 per cent with physical distancing. The province also sent kids home Monday as schools closed early in response to rising caseloads.
Tighter gathering and capacity rules were to start Tuesday in Manitoba, where health officials said climbing cases due to Omicron were expected to exceed its resources for notifying most close contacts. Gyms, movie theatres and restaurants will face a limit of half capacity.
Ontario implemented its new public health orders Sunday, which see restaurants, retailers, gyms and other indoor settings operating at 50 per cent capacity.
While theatres are allowed to keep their doors open, some production companies in Ontario cancelled shows to contend with the rise in cases.
In Ottawa, plans to bring the acclaimed “Hamilton” musical to the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall next month have been postponed until July. And plans to première the eagerly anticipated Tom Stoppard play “Leopoldstadt” in North America in early 2022 were cancelled.
The implementation of capacity limits had some small business owners lamenting how the “most wonderful time of year” has become a nightmare for a sector still struggling to recover from previous waves of the pandemic.
“There’s been a few dark moments through the pandemic, and that one really felt like one of the darker, even though we’ve been dealing with this for two years,” said Brendan Doherty, an owner of the Old Triangle alehouses across the Maritimes.
Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the organization surveyed 4,514 small business owners last month before Omicron reached its peak and found 36 per cent were back to normal sales.
“Any little glimmer of hope that many businesses saw at the end of this two-year tunnel are quickly being extinguished,” Kelly said.
To help the restaurant industry, B.C. said it’s extending its cap on fees charged by food delivery companies that was supposed to expire at the end of the year. It will now go to the end of 2022.
Meanwhile, Ontario and Quebec both saw people scrambling to get COVID-19 booster vaccine appointments and rapid tests.
Pharmacies in Montreal had long lineups as the province provided free rapid tests to residents, but many people walked away empty-handed.
Some experts are calling on provincial and federal governments to educate the public on using rapid tests as they become more readily available.
“Rapid testing seems to be becoming more available almost overnight and the rapid tests are getting into people’s hands faster than the messaging is coming out,” said Dr. Dalia Hasan, a physician and founder of COVID Test Finders, an advocacy group for the availability of rapid tests.
“People need to know the intended purpose of the tests, when to use them and how to use them if they’re going to be effective,” she said.
Appointments for booster shots were also snapped up in Ontario as millions of residents became eligible for third doses.
Clement Law in Ottawa said he logged onto the provincial website shortly before bookings were supposed to open and was placed in a virtual lineup that lasted more than an hour. When he got access to the booking system, Law said there were no appointments available in his area.
“I put in my address to find the closest one and nothing shows up under 25 kilometres, nothing under 50, nothing under 100,” he said.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office said more than 125,000 third-dose appointments had been booked through the province’s online portal Monday morning.
Spokeswoman Alexandra Hilkene said public health units are “actively working to add appointments to the booking system” as the province ramps up vaccination capacity.
The province reported 3,784 new daily infections.
— With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa and The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said B.C. has limited capacity for bars and restaurants at 50 per cent.