MONTREAL — Quebec will lift capacity restrictions on venues and events with assigned seating, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Thursday, but he warned that the situation is still fragile and further relaxations won't come until after October.
The new rules, which start Oct. 8, apply to venues such as cinemas, theatres, arenas and stadiums, and they will permit Montreal's Bell Centre to be at full capacity for the Canadiens' first NHL home game on Oct. 16 against the New York Rangers. The arena had previously been limited to about one-third of its capacity, or 7,500 people.
"Good news for hockey fans, it's good news for the economy, it's good news for culture, I think it's good news for everybody," Dubé told reporters. "Quebecers have paid a high price over the last year and a half and we said when you would be vaccinated, you could have some benefits, those are the benefits they were expecting."
Anyone attending events at those venues will have to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask, except when eating or drinking, Dubé added.
The change only applies to organized events, and a 10-person indoor gathering limit inside private homes remains in effect. Dubé said other restrictions will likely not be lifted unless the COVID-19 situation remains stable after October.
"We can't declare victory, because we have to remain careful, the month of October will also have its challenges," Dubé said. "On one hand, I'm saying, bravo, very good September, a huge success, but we know there will be more indoor contacts during the month of October."
Gatherings for Thanksgiving and Halloween parties are part of the "October challenge," public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda told reporters.
"We now are going to have inside parties, which were, most of the time, outside during the summer," he said. "This could have an impact on transmission, because these will be contacts where there is higher risk of transmission."
Events such as meetings and graduation ceremonies, which are currently subject to a limit of 250 people, will also be free of capacity restrictions — if participants are fully vaccinated and wear masks while seated.
Dr. Leighanne Parkes, an infectious disease specialist and microbiologist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, said increasing capacity at venues for vaccinated individuals is a "measured risk."
"These individuals are very well protected against severe disease, they have a good level of protection even against the most virulent variant we have today, in terms of symptomatic infection," she said in an interview Thursday. "And we're going to layer on top of that other types of infection control practices, like masking, like making sure we have assigned seating."
In addition to limiting contacts, assigned seating makes contact tracing easier, Parkes said.
Meanwhile, Quebec's Public Security Department said police forces across the province have issued 34 tickets related to the province's vaccine passport system. Proof of vaccination has been required to access a range of non-essential businesses and services in the province since Sept. 1, but fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000 were not issued during an initial two-week grace period.
Quebec reported 655 new cases of COVID-19 and two more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus Thursday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press