Quebec has become the first Canadian province to make mask-wearing mandatory in all indoor public places for people aged 12 years and older.
Premier Francois Legault said the new directive enters into effect Saturday - just in time for the province's annual construction holiday.
Businesses will be expected to enforce the new rules and are subject to fines of between $400 and $6,000 if their customers are caught violating the health directive, Legault told reporters Monday in Montreal.
He said the government is considering imposing fines on individuals beginning in August. People who for medical reasons cannot wear masks are exempt from the new rule, Legault added.
The premier said his government held off making mask-wearing indoors mandatory until now because it wanted to impose restrictions on Quebecers gradually. The new rules enter into effect July 18, at the beginning of the two-week construction holiday, during which Quebecers are expected to travel around the province with their families.
“It's easier to wear a mask than to return to being confined,'' Legault said, adding the province has seen a slight increase in the number of daily new COVID-19 cases.
“I know it's summer,'' he said. “It's holidays. It's not fun to wear a mask, but it's essential to avoid going backwards.''
Quebec reported 100 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, as well as one additional death. That brings the province's total deaths to 5,628, while infections reached 56,621. Hospitalizations declined by one to 305, with 21 people in intensive care.
Legault said the new rule applies in all indoor settings across the province, including restaurants - but only when patrons are moving around.
“When we are sitting down, when we are at a table, we can take it off,'' he said. “But when we get up to use the bathroom or to leave, we put it back on.''
Groups representing business owners raised concerns about the responsibility of enforcing the measure, suggesting it places an additional burden on retailers who are already struggling.
In a statement, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said that while business owners respect the need to limit a second wave of the pandemic, “public health is a shared responsibility.''
“To ask a small business to be entirely responsible for consumer actions, which are beyond its reasonable control, and to impose fines doesn't seem very equitable,'' said Gopinath Jeyabalaratnam, a policy analyst for the group.
The Conseil du Patronat du Quebec, which represents employers, said responsibility should be shared between clients and business owners, and called on the government to emphasize education rather than fines.
Legault said it was necessary to rely on businesses because “police cannot be in all the shops at the same time.'' He said enforcement would likely begin with warnings and progress to fines.
As for retail or restaurant workers who are confronted with recalcitrant customers, Legault said they should call police.
On Monday, mask-wearing also became mandatory inside public transit across the province. At the entrance to Montreal's St-Laurent subway station, however, there was little evidence anything had changed.
Around noon, there were no employees or prominent signs indicating the new rules as transit users, some wearing masks and some not, came in and out through the turnstiles.
Masks were more in evidence as rush hour began, and an announcement could be heard over the loudspeaker informing transit users of the measure.
The province has granted transit users a two-week grace period before people can be denied boarding for failing to wear a face covering. Legault said he expected a similar period would also be granted to allow the public to get used to the wider rule before fines are imposed.