This was a week of numbers in which we see a troubling road ahead in our recovery. Contradictory signals are not helping. Indeed they are confusing and are doing nothing to stop the fear even as Quebec’s daily Covid infection numbers stays at record lows of just over 100 down from over 1300 just a month ago.
Part of Quebec’s goal in making the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor public places where distancing is difficult was to give people confidence to come back to work, to shop, to entertain themselves in order to restart lives and revive our economy. The contrary has happened. Most people took it as sign of fear. Not only are they not going back, many are wearing masks in the open air and even when they are driving alone, this is unnecessary.
Part of Montreal’s argument for closing St. Catherine street to traffic except for one lane, was that more pedestrians will mean more customers for retailers struggling to stay afloat. That has not happened either. Mixed with the general Covid fear, reduced parking and construction chaos has resulted in downtown Montreal — responsible for one-third of Quebec’s GDP — becoming a ghost town.
We have warned of the consequences of Quebec and Montreal’s actions many times in this space. This past week shocking numbers forced both governments to do an about face.
The Montreal Chamber of Commerce — which had itself just six weeks ago supported a partial reduction in traffic lanes along St. Catherine — reported the stunning news that only 5% of downtown’s 330,000 workers had returned to work. Mostly due to fear of Covid. Some due to the fact that rather than fight the congestion and reduced parking, many have decided to stay on the CERB and others just find it easier and more efficient to work from home.
Without a dramatic and immediate change, our society will not have the money to pay for our most essential services. No business and no tax revenues will lead to empty government coffers. In reaction to the report, Mayor Plante ordered a 50% cut in parking rates at Complexe Desjardins and at the Palais des Congrès. For the first time she actually tacitly encouraged driving into downtown. And she made it clear that downtown Montreal’s revival is the key to our recovery. She is even creating public spaces with benches and landscaped areas for “picnics.”
For its part, Quebec had to come to terms with its own numbers and this stark reality. Faced with reports that downtowns throughout Quebec’s cities have only seen some 10% of workers return — outside of Montreal — Premier Legault made a point of reminding employers that they are allowed to have 25% of their employees and associates back in the offices in our business towers. Just three weeks ago he was cautioning that ONLY 25% were allowed back. This past week he was almost imploring people to GET to 25%. Quebec also announced that as of Aug.3 indoor and outdoor gatherings for 250 people will be allowed up from the current limit of 50.
We can only hope that this is not too little too late. If the goal is zero infections — which no doctor says is possible — we will never recover. The abundance of caution has frozen the recovery. It is time for citizens and politicians alike to concentrate on the positive news.