MONTREAL -- The Quebec government has reversed its decision on holiday gatherings in most of the province, citing a worrisome increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the past few days as the reason.

Premier Francois Legault made the announcement at a news conference on Thursday alongside Health Minister Christian Dube and the province's director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda.

"When we look at the situation, we are forced to realize that it is not realistic to think that we are going to succeed in reducing the progression of the virus in a satisfactory way by Christmas," Legault said. 

The only exception will be for people who live alone, the premier said. They will be allowed to receive one visitor at a time.

In the span of a week, Quebec beat its record for the highest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases multiple times. The current record, set on Wednesday, stands at 1,514.

"We all know we've had a second wave that started in September specifically and we pretty quickly reached an average of 1,000 cases per day," Legault said. "Unfortunately, in November, we had a second increase within the second wave."

The province initially green-lit Christmas gatherings for up to 10 people between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27, later clarifying that only two gatherings would be allowed within that time frame.

"I don't give myself perfect marks for the management of the crisis," Legault said on Thursday. “If we had to do things over again, I would not open the door to two days of gatherings around Christmas.” 

Legault said the government usually bases its decisions on the recommendations of public health, but that this one was made by his team.

Public health had recommended for the government to make its decision on holiday gatherings by Dec. 11, but Legault said he didn't think it would be responsible to give people hope until then.

"We’re in the worst moment of the past nine months," he said. "This is the peak." 

Thursday's announcement will not impact the plan laid out for schools leading up to the holidays; classes will still be held remotely during the last week before the break.

People living outside of red zones are permitted to gather, but Legault stressed they should also use caution -- and keep gatherings small: 10 people maximum in yellow zones, and six people maximum in orange zones.

Legault said he knows the pandemic has been hard on Quebecers but that the last stretch of a marathon is the hardest part, and that it is important to remain vigilant over the next few months in order to stop the spread of the disease. 

"The gathering -- four days-- was conditional, there were a lot of ifs," Arruda said. 

"Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated," Legault added. 

Montreal infectious disease specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton thinks the government's decision was the right one, but he hopes this move is just one part of a bigger plan. 

"I'd like to see this coupled with an action plan going forward," he said. "... What else are we going to do given that it's so serious that we've cancelled Christmas?"

If Legault hadn't made this decision, Oughton said hospitals would have felt the impact come January. 

"I think this was a good call on the part of the premier," he said. "Given the sheer number of new cases we're having every day across this province, I think the Christmas plans were putting many people and our health-care system in serious jeopardy of having further disease..."

Like thousands of Quebecers, Christmas is Oughton's favourite time of year, he said.

"The way I'm going to look at this is that this year, the most important gift we can give each other is the gift of health," he said.