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Quebec backtracks on taxing unvaccinated to maintain 'social peace'

MONTREAL — Three weeks after threatening to tax unvaccinated Quebecers, Premier François Legault abandoned the idea on Tuesday, worried about how much it had divided the province.

MONTREAL — Three weeks after threatening to tax unvaccinated Quebecers, Premier François Legault abandoned the idea on Tuesday, worried about how much it had divided the province.

"When we see what's happening in our society and on social media, I have a certain worry about seeing Quebecers divided," Legault told reporters in Quebec City.

On Jan. 11, Legault said his government would break new ground by making the unvaccinated — about 10 per cent of eligible Quebecers — pay a significant financial penalty because they were overrepresented in the health-care system. It was the first proposed tax of its kind in the country.

On Tuesday, the premier said Finance Minister Eric Girard had prepared a bill to tax Quebecers who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 without a medical reason, but Legault said the legislation would not be tabled.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, Legault said his role is to ensure a climate of "social peace and a certain social cohesion" in the province.

The premier denied he had lacked judgment by making a threat he wasn't willing to go through with, and he defended the proposed measure as another attempt to incentivize people to get vaccinated. But he acknowledged discontent has grown in recent weeks among Quebecers, adding that his focus would be to build bridges.

"We'll continue to try to reach those who refuse to receive their first dose," Legault said. "But I'm also worried about the division we see in Quebec — my role is to try to bring Quebecers together, to stay united as a people."

Quebec's official Opposition said when the idea was first proposed it was nothing more than an empty threat. The Liberals predicted the government would adandon the tax the same way it had dropped a plan to force health-care workers to get the jab or be suspended without pay. 

The Opposition had also called the government's proposal on Jan. 11 a distraction, aimed at drawing attention away from the resignation the night prior of Dr. Horacio Arruda as public health director.

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade on Tuesday said the decision to abandon the proposal was more improvisation by the Legault government.

"He's managing by polls," Anglade said. "He must have a poll that's saying, 'you know, this is not popular anymore.'"

Québec solidaire's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said the move shows the vaccination tax was essentially a trial balloon.

"This vaccine tax was nothing more than an idea of the moment," Nadeau-Dubois said. "It was never a serious plan, it was never something that was thought and prepared."

Also Tuesday, Legault announced that gyms and spas would be allowed to reopen in the province on Feb. 14, but he stopped short of easing further restrictions, such as the forced closure of bars. Though the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals dropped by 426 in one week, he said the hospital network is still under tremendous pressure.

On Monday, restaurant dinning rooms were permitted to reopen at 50 per cent capacity. The second phase of Quebec's reopening plan is set for next week, with places of worship and entertainment and sports venues allowed to reopen Feb. 7 with capacity restrictions.

Dr. Luc Boileau, the province's interim public health director, said decisions are being taken based on the Omicron variant's increased transmissibility compared to the Delta variant.

"Right now, we're looking at phases of (loosening) the measures … to make sure that it will not induce automatically a high rate of high-risk contact," Bolieau said. "In bars, we have a lot of experience with those places and unfortunately … those are places where risk of transmission of the virus is very high."

Boileau said he expects bars will be permitted to reopen in the near future as the situation improves and urged people to get a booster shot. About 61 per cent of Quebec adults have obtained a third dose so far, he added.

The Health Department said Tuesday COVID-19-related hospitalizations dropped by 36 from the day before, to 2,852, after 207 people were admitted to the province's hospitals and 243 were discharged. The number of people in intensive care dropped by five, to 218. Officials reported 63 more deaths linked to the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press