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Greater Montreal COVID-19 reopening put off as cases in region surge

MONTREAL — A planned reopening of schools and stores in Montreal has been delayed until at least May 25, the Quebec government announced Thursday, as health authorities attempt to get the COVID-19 situation in the city under control.
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MONTREAL — A planned reopening of schools and stores in Montreal has been delayed until at least May 25, the Quebec government announced Thursday, as health authorities attempt to get the COVID-19 situation in the city under control.

Premier Francois Legault said the province will keep close tabs on the situation in Montreal and surrounding regions before deciding whether stores, daycares and elementary schools can reopen later this month.

"We're seeing that the conditions to keep our initial reopening calendar in Montreal are not met for the moment," Legault said. "And, as I've said in the last days, this (reopening) will happen only if the conditions are met before May 25."

Quebec announced 121 additional deaths Thursday for a total of 2,631 since the beginning of the pandemic. The province also saw 911 new cases of the virus, bringing the provincial tally to 35,238.

Legault noted that of the new deaths, most were recorded in greater Montreal, which explains why the province can proceed with plans to reopen in other regions.

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante welcomed the decision to put off a reopening but acknowledged COVID-19 has hit the city's economy hard.

"The health of the population is always what is most important," Plante said during an announcement about measures to help businesses. The city accounts for 1,666 deaths and nearly 18,000 confirmed cases.

The province announced new incentives in the form of bonuses to get health-care workers — 50 per cent of whom are part-time employees — to take on full-time hours and ease a shortage of employees in long-term care homes.

Those willing to switch to full-time in long-term care homes, seniors homes and in Montreal hospitals with COVID-19 patients can earn up to $1,000 per month in bonuses.

Treasury Board President Christian Dube also announced an extra $2,000 per month would be paid to workers from outside greater Montreal willing to work full-time in the metropolitan region. He estimates there are 100,000 potential part-time workers who could qualify for the bonuses.

"Some of them are scared of coming to help because they don't now what they will be facing," Dube said, confident they'll change their minds after doing the work.

"And honestly, having a 30 to 40 per cent increase in wages over a month is huge."

Legault noted 11,600 employees are absent from the homes, either due to illness or fear, creating a huge strain on human resources.

The province has tried a number of initiatives to fill the gap, including asking anyone willing to work to do so.

Quebec has also requested the help of Canadian Forces soldiers, and the federal government said that by mid-May, 1,350 Canadian Forces soldiers will be deployed to 25 Quebec long-term care homes hard hit by COVID-19.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that as of Thursday, the number stood at 1,020 members working at 20 long-term care homes, mainly in the Montreal area.

Legault made a request for military help on April 22, asking at the time for 1,000 soldiers. 

Sajjan said they're moving as quickly as they can to get boots on the ground.

Of those currently deployed, about two thirds are working in the homes while one third are providing help with logistics and deliveries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press