With COVID-19 indicators steadily decreasing, Quebec is set to lift its mask mandate on Saturday — the last pandemic measure still in place.

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Had the opportunity arisen any earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Michel Bohbot says he would have thought twice about opening a restaurant.

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But with pandemic indicators on a steady decline and the summer weather bringing the city to life, Bohbot feels the timing is finally right.

Resto Lounge La Nottè, which he co-owns, will open next week in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, only days after Quebec lifts its indoor mask mandate — the last remaining pandemic measure in the province.

“We get the feeling things are starting back up again,” Bohbot said this week as he put the finishing touches on the new space.

“I also think (the mask mandate lifting) could create a snowball effect, in terms of people feeling more comfortable.”

Though public health experts still urge caution, Quebec is looking to enter a new phase of the pandemic this weekend. For the first time in nearly two years, masks will no longer be required in most public spaces as of Saturday.

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At the same time, an epidemiologist with Quebec’s public health institute said in an interview, the recent decrease seen in most indicators should continue through the summer.

“The current trend is clearly downward and we certainly expect this to continue for the next few months,” said Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist with the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ).

“That is if nothing happens in terms of a totally new variant that would be able to escape the immunity that exists in the population.”

De Serres noted that although indicators have been dropping, the overall level of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the province — roughly 1,800 as of Thursday — still remains quite high.

But what’s remarkable about the way the sixth wave has progressed, he added, is that it has waned while the province has removed public health measures, in contrast to previous waves that were driven down by stricter measures.

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“The current wave has evolved far more quote-unquote naturally,” De Serres said.

De Serres said this is important because since previous waves were controlled through restrictions, it left a lot of people vulnerable to infection afterward, allowing the next wave to gain steam sooner.

“With a more natural course,” he added, “you would expect to have fewer and fewer susceptible individuals, therefore the next wave will have to happen with some sort of new phenomenon — like a new variant.”

De Serres said whether a resurgence occurs in the fall, as Quebec has experienced after recent summers, remains to be seen.

“It’s really a moving situation,” he said. “Will there be COVID-19 next fall? For sure. How big will it be? That will depend on a variety of factors.”

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Case numbers among those who can access PCR testing and hospitalizations have steadily declined in Quebec since mid-to-late April. The province is still, however, recording an average of 20 COVID-related deaths per day.

Quebec has said it’s confident it can end the mask mandate Saturday without risking a significant uptick in transmission. Once the mandate is lifted, masks will still be required on public transit, in long-term care homes and in health care institutions.

Though ending mandatory masking has been welcomed by many, it’s left others with mixed emotions. That includes people who are immunocompromised and don’t benefit from the same level of protection the vaccine grants others.

“Like everyone else, we’re happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we do have concerns,” Geneviève Solomon, general director of the Quebec Association of Immunodeficient Patients, said this week.

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Top among those concerns and challenges, Solomon said, is whether people who are COVID-positive will continue to wear masks in public. There are also fears social pressures could leave those who need to wear masks feeling ostracized.

Solomon added that while some may have started seeing the virus as less of a threat, people who are immunocompromised don’t have that option. Distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing and other precautions will remain part of their daily lives.

Solomon hopes the general public will understand that moving forward.

“It’s not because we don’t want this to be over, on the contrary,” Solomon said. “It’s just that we don’t get the relief of saying it’s behind us yet, because we’re still in it. And we still need to protect ourselves.”

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