curfew legault montreal quebec election Léger

The curfew doesn’t work for Montreal, it only shields Legault from criticism

“I’m experiencing major COVID  fatigue. This unnecessary curfew restriction felt like the last straw.”

When Premier François Legault announced the curfew would, once again, be starting at 8 p.m., my initial reaction was… no reaction. Thirteen months into this pandemic, I’m tired. After a year of lockdowns, restrictions and a constantly changing and often contradictory list of directives, I’m exhausted from dealing with a government that keeps shifting the focus and responsibility onto people and away from its own questionable public policies. After a year of missing my friends and my mom’s hugs and my baby nephew’s little hand in mine, I’m experiencing major COVID  fatigue. This unnecessary curfew restriction felt like the last straw.

I miss my city’s pre-pandemic routine. I miss human connection and the closeness of a packed bar, the buzz of a full theatre before the curtain rises, the weekend mornings spent sipping coffee at a local café while reading a book. I miss having people over for dinner. I’ve aimlessly walked most of the city by now. I miss my gym, I miss easy access to public bathrooms, I miss eating a restaurant meal that doesn’t come in a take-out box. I miss extra-long diner breakfasts. I miss concerts and festivals and comedy shows. I miss so many things that make Montreal the city I love. And I know I’m not the only one.

Soaking up the sun

This past Saturday found me having dinner al fresco at my local park in my Southwest neighbourhood. A friend and I threw some blankets on a ground that’s barely had the chance to soak up the last of the winter’s snow, grabbed some food from a local restaurant, shared some wine and caught up on life. It was 22C in April after a rough pandemic winter and the park was hopping.

The nearby Lachine Canal was brimming with activity. Families on their bikes, couples enjoying romantic tête-à-têtes, friends lining up the beer cans and the chairs, people working out. It was a familiar scene, repeated pretty much most nights in Montreal neighbourhoods throughout the summer, but there was an urgency that night that I easily recognized as the trifecta of gorgeous spring weather, COVID fatigue and the impending doom of an 8 p.m. curfew soon coming down on us. People were desperate to soak it all up, the way a parched man reaches for water.

Stop shaming people for gathering outside

Unfortunately, I also saw a lot of people sharing these park snapshots as a sign of irresponsibility, implying outdoor gatherings are the reason why our COVID numbers will spike and why the curfew is necessary. This is wrong on many levels.

People gathering outside to socialize and enjoy fresh air and warm sun are the least of my problems. Outdoor transmission is extremely rare. A recent review by the University of California of five global studies of transmission concluded that the chances of getting COVID-19 in an indoor setting is 19 times greater than outdoors. Picnics aren’t our problem.

Also, what would you have Montreal residents do? To get irate at images of people in parks is to get angry at an urban reality you don’t understand. Montreal is not the suburbs or rural Quebec. It’s an urban city with all the amazing attractions a city has, but also the challenges of a highly dense metropolis where a lot of low-income, working-class and first-generation immigrant families live. These very same people who probably constitute a disproportionate number of frontline workers, PABs at hospitals, cashiers at supermarkets and dollar stores, workers in manufacturing assembly lines and construction sites. Montreal is also a university town with thousands of students. They have neither the luxury to isolate nor to avoid people as they, too, live with roommates and mostly work frontline jobs, so whether you see some of them in the park with friends or behind a cash register is kind of irrelevant.

People in cities often don’t have backyards or extra space — many of us deliberately, trading small living quarters for proximity to things we love. As a result, the unwritten rule is that parks are an extension of our living quarters, public spaces where we urbanites naturally congregate to socialize. Many of us live alone and work alone and as social creatures we need to be able to enjoy a few hours face to face with a friend to feel human again. If anything, this pandemic has solidified both the absolute necessity and the value of additional green spaces in cities — including Montreal.

Ultimately, government flip-flopping is adding to COVID fatigue and tampers with the necessary buy-in people need for this final last push as vaccinations accelerate. I (and many others, I suspect) would be more inclined to accept some of these latest directives if our political leaders didn’t so casually ignore the fact that virus transmission occurs mainly in workplaces, manufacturing, construction and schools, places they refuse to close. Outdoor gatherings are simply not the problem and reducing opportunities for many of us to safely gather, go for a walk or take in a sunset will do little to reduce public risk, but will do plenty to aggravate law-abiding citizens at the end of their rope.

Vandalism and arson aren’t “fighting for freedom”

Quick caveat: when I refer to people uncomfortable with the latest curfew measures, I’m in no way talking about anti-maskers or some of the people in the crowd yelling “freedom for the youth” Sunday night. There’s no question this past year has revealed certain people’s selfishness, shallowness, ignorance or lack of emotional fortitude. Being asked to band together and protect each other during the pandemic as members of a collective is not an infringement on my freedom. Some people are simply not equipped to handle such a request and have unravelled or have been easily swayed by groups busy furthering their own questionable agendas.

My freedom isn’t being “violated” when I wear a mask or follow rational, science-based safety guidelines. I’m therefore in no way condoning what happened this past Sunday in Old Montreal, as what originally began as a legitimate anti-curfew protest deteriorated into full-on arson and vandalism. Targeting business owners who have nothing to do with setting curfew directives and don’t need the added stress and aggravation of property damage as they try to survive this pandemic isn’t “standing up for your rights.”

Paternalistic curfews and theatrics solve nothing

Ultimately, our government needs to make sure it doesn’t erode the trust we place in them to make the right calls. I know the variants are worrisome and I want our decision-makers to take them seriously. But changing an indefinite curfew from 9:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. while simultaneously keeping schools, factories, malls and construction sites open is utter theatrics that penalizes the ones who have the least right now.

It scapegoats and shames the public while conveniently shifting the focus from Legault’s inconsistent, coin-toss decision-making. Picnics aren’t our problem. Questionable public policies are. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.