Montreal’s return to an 8 pm-to-5 am curfew April 11 was greeted by a large protest in the city’s Old Port, culminating in a small minority setting fires and breaking shop windows. Most of the 1,000 or so protesters defying the curfew had dispersed when police forces closed in.
Imposed in January during swiftly escalating pandemic-related hospitalizations, the curfew had been pushed back to 9:30 pm shortly after clocks changed for daylight savings time. With days getting longer and warmer, experts warned that people would resist staying inside while the sun still shone.
While outbreaks in early April have resulted in emergency lockdown measures in the Quebec City and Gatineau regions, infection rates in Montreal remain relatively stable. The earlier curfew for the metropolis was framed as a preventive response to the more contagious Covid variants.
The province defends its “yo-yo” approach to restrictions as balancing physical with mental health. However, after a year of growing pandemic fatigue, there are signs that the government has pushed too far.
“The curfew is a measure that overshoots the mark in that it restricts rights and freedoms in a way that is not justified or reasonable,” said Cara Zwibel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “How effective is this kind of punitive approach where we fine people for doing things that pose no threat to public health?”
With no evidence showing curfews have any impact on limiting the virus, extending it further is proving counterproductive. Epidemiologist Prativa Baral told CBC the curfew change was “more performative than science-based” as “the virus doesn’t stop operating before or after a certain hour.”
Many public health experts say the risk of gathering outdoors is low. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that 96% of coronavirus clusters were associated with indoor settings, with the rare outdoor examples mostly connected to mass gatherings.
In densely populated Montreal, parks and other public spaces are a necessary antidote to small living quarters. Getting outside is vital for people’s mental health and an effective harm-reduction strategy for those in crowded households.
Grassroots organizations have highlighted the curfew’s devastating impacts on undocumented workers and women in abusive relationships. Homeless people were exempted from the curfew only after a court challenge and the death of Inuk Raphaël André, who froze to death hiding from the police.
The pandemic’s well-known impacts on disadvantaged populations are exacerbated by this curfew. People in poor neighbourhoods are more likely to be frontline workers stopped by police, and reports of harassment are common. For Indigenous and Black people in particular, these police encounters can be traumatic.
Involving police in public health matters sets a disturbing precedent, particularly in Montreal where police have a history of racial profiling. On the weekend the curfew returned to 8 pm, police were witnessed targeting people of colour and viciously attacking a man drinking in a park.
As the only jurisdiction in North America with a curfew, Quebec’s paternalistic approach has been derided as “authoritarian theatre.” Instead of employing tools like rapid Covid tests and ventilation detectors that have helped other regions, the province instead seeks scapegoats to conceal its own negligence.
While increasing infections among younger people is worrisome, they will continue to gather with or without a curfew. The resulting sleepovers and other clandestine behaviours only put people at greater risk.
As our too-brief summer approaches, people will be outside as much as possible, as always. Whatever the government’s intention, preventing this fundamental desire is unrealistic. Applying any curfew creates unnecessary conflict – extending it to 8 pm is unjust, and unjustified.