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Quebec’s Top Doctor Wasn’t the One Behind Restaurant Closures

Though Dr. Arruda was comfortable with the decision, he admits it wasn’t the only option he put forward

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If it were up to Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda, restaurant dining rooms might still be open — albeit in a limited capacity. Arruda explained as much to Parti-Québécois leader Pascal Bérubé while testifying before the National Assembly in a three-hour hearing on Wednesday.

“On an epidemiological basis, with regards to certain environments, notably museums or restaurants, we had recommended that they could potentially remain open, given the fact that it had not been shown that people did not respect the instructions,” Dr. Arruda explained in response to Bérubé’s questioning on whether there had been any recommendation put forth by public health officials that the provincial government has not followed.

Before the second round of closures in October, restaurants were allowed to stay open as long as hand-washing stations were placed at entrances, servers wore PPE, reduced capacity rules were observed, and diners wore masks when standing. Many restaurant owners profess to having spent thousands of dollars on PPE and plexiglass and stringently following the regulations.

Of course, even the most diligent restaurant owners and workers cannot invariably avoid the occasional unruly diner or the finding that respiratory droplets from an infected person (asymptomatic or not) can skirt plexiglass barriers and remain airborne for long periods of time. In the week preceding the announcement of the second round of restaurant closures, from September 20 to 26, 13 outbreaks at restaurants or bars across the province resulted in 38 new cases, according to an INSPQ COVID-19 workplace report.

“So you were in favour of keeping [restaurants] open?” Bérubé asked Dr. Arruda during yesterday’s hearing on the Legault government’s COVID-19 response. “This has heavy consequences. You didn’t recommend that restaurants close because they were not sites of outbreaks. The Quebec government decided to close the restaurants on its own.”

“But we were asked if we were comfortable with it, and the answer was yes ... even if it wasn’t our first scenario,” Dr. Arruda explained, citing other factors such as public perception and a look at other jurisdictions that had implemented restaurant closures as motivations behind the government’s ultimate decision.

Given an opportunity to add nuance to the discussion, Dr. Richard Massé, strategic medical advisor to the General Directorate of Public Health, sitting to the right of Dr. Arruda, explained that the recommendation hadn’t been for a wholesale opening of restaurant dining rooms, but more so a piecemeal approach where only members of the same family, or a home bubble, would be able to dine out together.

“This will certainly be of interest to restaurateurs who are attentive to this consultation,” Bérubé said, concluding that line of questioning.

Restaurant dining rooms in Quebec will remain closed until at least January 11.