SHERBROOKE, Quebec — Modeling Israel, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Montreal has become the first municipality in Canada to require residents to wear masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. The mayor of Cote Saint-Luc, where 73 percent of the 34,000 residents are Jewish, said the town’s new law was inspired by Israeli regulations and subsequently low infection rate.
“Quebec is the same size in terms of population as Israel. But the number of corona patients was 53,000 here, while in Israel it was 18,000,” said Cote Saint-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, who added that he hasn’t left his house without a mask since the start of the pandemic.
“I have relatives in Israel, I speak with them and I know about the different restrictions that were put on over there,” Brownstein told The Times of Israel via telephone. “Obviously, it worked better than whatever was going on here. We had three times the number of cases.”
According to the new law, which goes into effect on Monday, business owners will be fined between $100 and $500 if customers do not cover their faces inside their establishments. In addition, residents will be expected to wear masks inside municipal buildings such as the library or City Hall.
“It makes it safer for everyone. It also helps businesses. When people see that everyone else is wearing a mask, they’ll be more likely to go. So it helps the economy,” Brownstein said. “Interestingly enough, the businesses didn’t complain.”
Brownstein, whose second cousin died from the virus, added that he is particularly concerned about protecting the town’s elderly residents. Brownstein said that 30% of the population of Cote Saint-Luc is over the age of 65 – more than any other town in Quebec. In Canada, the majority of deaths from COVID-19 took place in long-term care facilities for the elderly and among people older than 65.
“The seniors were like, ‘Thank you so much!’ The occasional young people complained, but 98% of young people support it because they care about their parents and grandparents,” Brownstein said.
The mayor is convinced that others in Canada will soon follow Cote Saint-Luc’s lead. Indeed, just last week, Ottawa announced that the wearing of face coverings will be mandatory on the city’s public transport, while Toronto decided to introduce the same regulation on its buses and trains in July.
“I’m sure Montreal will do the same with their buses and the metro,” Brownstein said. “Nobody wants a second wave.”
But so far the city of Montreal, which is the epicenter of the pandemic in Canada, has refused to make the wearing of face coverings mandatory.
Closely connected Jewish communities
The town of Cote Saint-Luc — just five kilometers (three miles) away from a Montreal metro station — was one of the hardest-hit municipalities in Canada at the start of the pandemic. Whether this is because of residents’ close ties to the Jewish community in New York, or the large weddings that took at place before lockdown was announced, is not clear.
The city has counted at least 500 cases of coronavirus on record, but the true figure is likely higher as only a portion of residents were tested. At least 34 people at the Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Center — Cote-Saint-Luc’s Jewish nursing home — have died of complications from the virus, and a further 133 residents and 39 staff are currently infected. The Canadian military deployed 14 troops to the facility on June 10 to assist residents and lighten the load for staff.
A local Chabad Hasidic rabbi and his wife were among those who fell ill; they were infected at a wedding. While 54-year-old Sarah Raskin’s case was relatively mild — she lost her sense of taste and noticed that she was burning her food because she couldn’t smell — her husband, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Raskin, 57, ended up with a fever that lasted for 12 days and was hospitalized with pneumonia.
“If this is the way to solve the pandemic, I feel that’s a very wise decision,” said Sarah Raskin about mandatory mask-wearing. “I find it extremely thrilling that the world is looking to Israel for guidance. Israel is an inspiration for the entire world, which is beautiful. This is the way God designed it to be.”
I find it extremely thrilling that the world is looking to Israel for guidance
Montreal remains Canada’s COVID-19 epicenter — yet city and provincial officials have so far only encouraged people to cover their faces while using public transportation and in indoor spaces when they cannot stay two meters apart.
“Before taking measures that could potentially infringe on the freedom of others, public health authorities must be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the measure scientifically. This is not currently the case for face coverings,” wrote Marie-Helene Emond, the spokeswoman for the Quebec province’s Ministry of Health and Social Services. “This is a complementary measure, which is strongly encouraged.”
Speaking for Montreal’s public health department, Jean Nicolas Aubé referred The Times of Israel to a video from Quebec premier Francois Legault, in which he says that face masks can’t be a requirement “because we can’t supply everyone with a mask.”
Back in Cote Saint-Luc, Gabriel Ovadia, the owner of Kosher Pizza Bar, said that he supports the measure requiring the wearing of face coverings and has already announced it on social media.
“I think it’s just another necessary precaution to avoid the spread,” he said.
But other local businesses are skeptical about how the regulation will work in practice.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Faisel, a manager at a Boni Soir shop at a local gas station. “We have faithful clients who come here every day. I can’t turn them away if they don’t wear a mask.”
Reopening the ritual bath
Along with the introduction of mandatory face masks, this week marks another important milestone for Cote Saint-Luc: the reopening of women’s mikvahs, or ritual baths.
The government shut down the baths about two months ago along with most other public facilities to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“It was done in a very devastating way. The police came and there was a woman inside,” Raskin said. “When you take away the right of a woman to go to the mikvah, that is unacceptable. You are taking away her right to live with her husband.”
According to Jewish law, a man and woman may not have sexual relations during menstruation, and may only resume after the woman immerses herself in the ritual bath after seven “clean” days.
Because the mikvah was closed, some ladies had to “control themselves” and stay away from their husbands, said Raskin, while others may have considered alternatives such as going into a natural body of water or taking birth control pills to avoid menstruating.
According to Raskin, there was no reason to shut the mikvah down because no social gatherings take place there. Women go inside one at a time, bring their own towels, and do not stay for longer than 10 minutes, she said.
After much lobbying, the authorities finally agreed to reopen the Cote Saint-Luc mikvah on June 15 — the same day when face coverings will become mandatory.
Nothing religious is considered essential
“I’ve been fighting with health officials to get them to open. It was a big issue in our community,” Brownstein said, explaining that the issue was finally decided on the provincial level and was “totally out of municipal jurisdiction.”
Raskin is relieved that the mikvahs are opening, but remains unhappy with the way the government views religious activities.
“It only opens on Monday because nail salons are opening up. Nothing religious is considered essential,” she said. “In the entire world, nobody shut down the mikvah except for Cote Saint-Luc.”
The right to pray in a tent
Another hot button issue in Cote Saint-Luc involved the right of Jews to pray inside tents at a time when indoor gatherings and religious meetings were not permitted.
During the holiday of Shavuot, which this year fell out on the last weekend in May, police came to take down at least five tents that were set up near synagogues for congregants to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments.
“The only reason we wanted a tent is because it was threatening thunderstorms. The Torah scroll is so expensive and so valuable and it could become damaged,” explained Raskin. “The police came and ordered the tent down. They pointed to the book and said, ‘If you want to have a barbecue it’s okay, but if you want to have prayer, it’s not allowed.’ We felt like we were living in an age of KGB.”
After being faced with a $6,000 fine for every child present (including newborn babies, according to the Raskin), the worshipers took down their tents. Providentially, they were able to complete their prayers because the rain never came, Raskin said.