The Quebec government has announced that it will continue to require people to wear masks indoors, making it and Prince Edward Island the only provinces in Canada to do so. 

The news comes amid what health experts describe as a sixth COVID wave, fuelled by the BA.2 Omicron subvariant. 

Quebec’s public health director Dr. Luc Boileau had recommended that the government maintain the mask mandate.

“The pandemic is not over, it’s still here,” said Boileau on Tuesday. He did, however, reassure Quebecers that the government’s intention “is not to keep [masks] forever.” 

The province reported 1479 hospitalizations and 2615 new cases Tuesday, which is up from last week’s 1153 hospitalizations and 2171 cases confirmed via PCR testing.

The Quebec government’s mask mandate, which is the longest lasting in Canada, has been in place since Jul. 18 2020. 

Quebec had previously opted to join other Canadian provinces by lifting most indoor masking requirements on Apr. 15. The measure will now remain in place until at least Apr. 30.

The decision to continue forced masking, including for children 10 and older, has been applauded by some health experts in the province who had called for the measure to remain in place.

Dr. Cecile Tremblay, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal’s CHUM hospital, had told CBC last week she supported keeping the mandate in place. 

“Ten to 12 people a day die from COVID. You know, that’s a lot of people dying,” said Tremblay. “Is this what it means to be living with the virus? Not for me. I don’t accept that.”

Tremblay is also calling for the reimposition of capacity limits in some high-risk businesses including restaurants.

However, others have shared their disapproval of today’s announcement, including Quebec Conservative leader Eric Duhaime, who accused Quebec premier Francois Legault of hiding behind public health. 

“François Legault does not have the courage to announce his bad decision,” said Duhaime. “He is still hiding behind public health. Mr. Legault is only announcing the news that brings votes to the CAQ.”

Quebecers are currently some of the only people in Canada who are still required by their government to wear masks indoors. The only other Canadian province that still has a mask mandate in place is Prince Edward Island, which had previously implemented a “COVID Zero” approach. 

Saskatchewan was the first province to lift its mask mandate on Feb. 28, following the peak of the Omicron wave and historic anti-mandate trucker convoy protests in Ottawa and across Canada. 

Other provinces including Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Ontario followed suit.

All 50 U.S. states have also lifted their mask mandates, as well as many European nations including England, Ireland, France, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Poland.

While Quebec’s health minister Christian Dubé said that “people need to learn to live with the virus”, Boileau didn’t rule out new government restrictions to deal with the sixth wave. 

He told Radio Canada last week that “​​(a)ll options are on the table [but] this is not our current focus.”

In prior waves, the Quebec government imposed some of the strictest restrictions in the Western world, which included lockdowns, curfews, bans on gatherings, interprovincial travel restrictions and the closure of places of worship. 

The province also introduced a vaccine passport regime that went as far as limiting access to groceries for those who chose not to take the COVID-19 vaccine. 

While the mask mandate is the only remaining government pandemic restriction in Quebec, the province currently has higher infection rates than many provinces that do not have a mandate.

Infection rates over the last seven days were 229 per 100,000 people in Quebec, 132 per 100,000 in Ontario and 26 per 100,000 in British Columbia.

Quebec also recently began offering fourth doses to vulnerable populations including the immunocompromised, those living in long-term care and retirement homes and people over the age of 80. 

However, despite being quadruple-vaccinated, those people will still be required to wear masks.