After a nearly 140-day curfew, Quebecers across the province took advantage of looser restrictions this weekend to party late into the night, though some were more eager than others to shed the decorum imposed by the pandemic.
Spontaneous celebrations erupted in parks and other public spaces in Montreal and Quebec City on both Friday and Saturday nights. They were accompanied by several violent altercations that sent at least three people hospital.
On Monday, Montreal police said they were concerned by both by the number of violent incidents over the weekend, and the looser approach to following the public health measures that remain in place.
“The first weekend of déconfinement posed a few challenges for Montreal police,” said Insp. David Shane, a spokesperson for the force, using the French term for the process of easing restrictions.
“Everyone’s happy. I’m happy. We’re all happy to see family and reunite with them. But we have to remember that the battle is not over against the virus.”
Montreal’s Old Port saw particularly rowdy partying. Riot police dispersed a crowd of several thousand people early Sunday morning after one person was shot and another stabbed during an altercation at Place Jacques-Cartier.
“At 1:30 a.m. people started shooting fireworks just behind Pointe-à-Callière museum. You could see fireworks in the air, crowds running through the streets,” said Carolyn Pinto, a longtime Old Montreal resident.
Along with the end of the 9:30 p.m. curfew, restaurants and some bars were allowed to reopen again in Montreal for the first time since the fall, though clients had to be seated outside and were limited to small groups.
After a few pints, revellers infused an energy into the long-dormant streets of Montreal, but also left behind mounds of garbage in the morning, business owners said.
“That’s exactly what will turn off our local clients or tourists. The City and police need to deal with this situation,” said Jean-Marc Lavoie, general manager of the Jardin Nelson restaurant in Place Jacques-Cartier.
Montreal police said they would reach out to business owners and boost patrols in Old Montreal and other central neighbourhoods.
Shane said police are operating with the hypothesis that public health rules that closed bars and clubs for months had displaced late-night violence toward residential parts of the city.
“With déconfinement maybe we’ll see [criminal] events moving back to downtown,” he said, adding that police counted around a dozen violent incidents over the weekend, ranging from a murder to fighting.
‘We have to be a little more careful for a little bit longer’
In Quebec City, some open-air celebrations also drifted toward excess. A large crowd had assembled at Victoria Park to herald the end of the curfew on Friday.
Those present described fireworks exploding and loud cheers erupting as the clock struck 9:30 p.m. “It was like the end of a war. It was like May 1945,” one resident told Radio-Canada.
But police had to clear the park shortly after when a man in his 20s was stabbed and, in a separate incident at nearly the same time, a women was hit in the head with a bottle.
City officials announced Monday that they were altering a rule that allowed drinking alcohol (with food) in some parks until 11 p.m. Boozing will now no longer be allowed after 8 p.m.
The City also issued a reminder to park-goers to pick up their garbage before returning home.
The large crowds in Quebec’s parks also tested the limits of the public health rules that remain in place. In many instances, revellers ignored physical distancing guidelines and failed to wear masks in close proximity with others.
“This is not the time to start giving hugs to everyone,” said Shane, the Montreal police spokesperson.
Health Minister Christain Dubé acknowledged, on Monday, that some of the weekend gatherings in parks broke the rules that remain in place, but he also said these incidents were the exception.
“If we want to have a good September, and not find ourselves in a fourth wave, then I think we have to get vaccinated and follow public health rules,” Dubé said.
He even suggested health authorities might use crowded parks, and restaurants, to further bolster the vaccination campaign.
“If we need to go to the parks, if we need to go to the terrasses, to get people vaccinated, we will do that,” Dubé said, adding that he had a meeting earlier in the day to explore the possibility.
Quebec registered 276 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday. Sixty per cent of the population has received one dose of a vaccine, but only five per cent has received the second dose needed for maximum protection against the disease.