Quebec Premier François Legault is remaining vague about when the COVID-19 state of emergency will be lifted, despite pressure from the opposition and civil rights groups.
Asked Friday whether the government would lift the emergency order at the end of August, when most Quebecers are expected to be fully vaccinated, Legault was evasive.
“I think that with vaccination, we can be confident it will be quite a bit more normal,” he said about the fall. Legault suggested public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda is waiting for 75 per cent of Quebecers to be fully vaccinated to recommend the end of the state of emergency.
“I think Mr. Arruda says that it takes two doses for 75 per cent of the population … he’s asking for us to be at 75 per cent in each age group,” Legault told a news conference in Quebec City ahead of the summer legislative break.
“That’s the aim, we think it’s possible to achieve that by the end of August.”
Legault said he doesn’t expect a major resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the fall. “With the vaccination, we are in a very different situation than we were last summer,” he said. “If there’s a fourth wave, I don’t expect it will be a big one.”
The declaration of a public health emergency under Quebec’s Public Health Act — which must be renewed every 10 days — gives the government broad powers, including the ability to close places of assembly, limit travel, enter into contracts and “order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population.”
Over the course of the pandemic, the government has used its emergency powers at various times to shut businesses and schools, to introduce a curfew and to suspend parts of its collective agreements with health-care unions — notably the provisions governing vacation time.
Earlier Friday, Opposition leader Dominique Anglade criticized the government for renewing health orders without holding a debate in the legislature. She said an analysis is needed to determine what emergency powers the government still requires.
“To keep elements of the health emergency, just for the sake of keeping them, to give the government more extraordinary powers when it’s not necessary, I don’t see the reason,” she told reporters.
Québec solidaire, the second-largest opposition party, has called for a special law that would give the government specific powers to fight the pandemic but would end the state of emergency that has now been extended more than 60 times.
“It would be unacceptable for us to continue to live in an emergency regime, under governance by decree next fall,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the party’s co-spokesperson, told reporters on Friday.
Catherine Descoteaux, a spokeswoman for the Ligue des droits et libertés, a Quebec civil rights group, said her organization would have liked the government to use the last day of the legislative session to end the state of emergency.
In a statement signed by 60 other civil society groups, the Ligue said the state of emergency needs to remain an exceptional tool for exceptional situations. While the state of emergency was warranted a year ago, Descoteaux said it’s no longer necessary now that province is reopening.
“I think that the government is really getting used to to governing without having to enter a dialogue with the National Assembly, or with the population,” Descoteaux said in an interview Friday. “I think that it’s really worrying.”
Descoteaux said she’s also concerned about several municipal councils that are continuing to meet behind closed doors. “This is really scary for us,” she said.
The use of the state of emergency also came under criticism from labour unions in May after Health Minister Christian Dubé said it was needed to give the government flexibility in contract negotiations. The next day, Dubé said he had misspoken and that he was talking about temporary measures, including bonuses given to some health-care workers, the wider use of telemedicine and the appointment of vaccinators.
Quebec reported 180 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, the sixth consecutive day health officials have reported fewer than 200 new infections. Officials also reported one more death attributed to the novel coronavirus.
The Health Department said hospitalizations dropped by seven from the day before, to 244, and 59 people were in intensive care, a drop of five.
Dubé said the province expects to receive 600,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine next week and 900,000 doses the week of June 21. Quebec has struggled with its plan to accelerate second doses due to limited vaccine supplies.