Easing up on public drinking laws would be useful as bars reopen, infectious disease experts say

As bars and restaurants begin to reopen across Ontario and other provinces continue to see a significant rise in COVID-19 cases traced back to indoor eateries, some infectious disease experts say easing up on public drinking laws may not be such a bad idea.

Earlier this month, the City of Toronto reminded its residents that public drinking will not be tolerated at any beaches or parks and will, in fact, come with a fine of up to $300 for anybody caught doing so. 

Following that, Torontonians took to Twitter last weekend to comment about the “heavy police presence and ticketing” they noticed at parks, including Trinity Bellwoods, west of the downtown. 

Toronto lawyer Ryan O’Connor, who has an interest in public policy, said that with regulations in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, the city needs to reconsider its alcohol-consumption rules.

“Treat adults like adults,” O’Connor said.

“If it’s legal for me to have a drink on a patio, why isn’t it legal for me to to share a bottle of wine with my wife in a park while we’re having a picnic.” 

Drinking among friends in sprawling green spaces — where there’s much more room to physically distance — can keep people away from dangerously crowded indoor gatherings, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton who studies infectious diseases.

“There’s all these reports of transmission in bars and house parties. So why don’t we mitigate that risk?” Chagla said. “Let’s use the outdoors rather than forcing people indoors for their gatherings.”

Toronto moved into Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan on Friday, allowing bars and restaurants to resume serving patrons indoors under strict physical-distancing regulations.

But indoor eateries have proven to be risky environments for the novel coronavirus to spread, especially in British Columbia, where a sudden surge in cases led the province to announce stricter measures for restaurant operators. 

Equity needs to be considered

O’Connor said it’s not only a matter of personal freedom, it also comes down to equity . 

“This is not an issue for someone who has a big backyard in Rosedale where they can have their friends over and crack a beer,” he said, referring to a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood.

“It’s an entirely different story if you live in a 500-square-foot apartment or condo, and the only place you can have a drink safely is out in a public park.”

O’Connor said people from “all over the economic spectrum” who are already targeted by police because of their race or ethnicity are likely the ones getting ticketed. 

There are already laws in place that address public drunkenness, mischief and property destruction, he said, and stricter rules against public drinking due to the pandemic will allow for more targeting and carding in some cases. 

“Carding is permissible if there’s a bylaw officer or a police officer asking someone for ID If they’re examining whether or not they’re breaching the emergency legislation,” O’Connor said.

‘No interest in ticketing someone having a beer’

Since the start of the pandemic, 113 alcohol-related tickets have been issued in Toronto under the Liquor Licence Act and the city’s parks bylaw. 

The Toronto Police Service confirmed a total of 48 fines between March 17  and May 31, while the city confirmed a total of 65 by the end of June. Numbers for July are not yet available. 

The city’s chief spokesperson, Brad Ross, addressed the issue several weeks ago in response to a comment about the city’s alcohol consumption rules in a Reddit thread, saying the problem is public intoxication and crowding in public places where people should be physically distancing. 

“The issue, frankly, isn’t someone enjoying a cold beer or glass of wine — it’s the excessiveness … organized parties with cases of beer being brought onto the beach or into parks,” Ross wrote in the post. 

“The city has no interest in ticketing someone having a beer.” 

Anybody drinking or holding an open container of alcohol at a Toronto park or beach can be fined up to $300. (Ryan O’Connor/Twitter)

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease expert with the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said being able to drink in public doesn’t necessarily result in people drinking in excess. 

“We don’t want to outlaw all behaviour just because taken to the extreme there can be problematic examples,” he said.

Schwartz said easing up on public drinking laws would be useful right now, during the short summer months of a lengthy global pandemic.

“Anything that is outdoors — as long as people aren’t shoulder to shoulder — we should be encouraging.”

Regulations across the country

In Ontario, the Alcohol and Gaming Regulation Act prohibits being drunk in a public place. However, with the exception of Quebec — where residents are allowed to drink in a park only if accompanied by a meal — it is illegal to drink outdoors in most parts of Canada. 

In April 2019, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced plans to loosen the province’s laws on booze. Premier Doug Ford said the province would leave it up to municipalities to regulate where residents could consume alcohol.

This week, Vancouver park commissioners voted in favour of allowing alcohol consumption in 22 parks around the city. British Columbia’s more relaxed approach is similar to Quebec’s. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Park board commissioners in Vancouver this week voted in favour of allowing alcohol consumption in 22 parks. Though actual implementation may take more time, B.C. is on its way to adapting a more relaxed approach to alcohol — similar to Quebec’s. 

When campaigning for re-election two years ago, Toronto Mayor John Tory also announced plans to reconsider the city’s current alcohol-consumption rules.

But as the pandemic goes on, the city says it will continue to enforce the rules against drinking outdoors when necessary.

“Enforcement officers in parks will provide education about liquor laws and, when necessary, issue tickets related to the consumption of alcohol,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC Toronto. “The city’s co-ordinated enforcement team remains focused on providing education about the physical-distancing bylaw and provincial orders.” 

While Chagla, the McMaster infectious disease expert, agrees that alcohol can cause people to relax or ignore physical-distancing rules, indoor environments makes those settings especially dangerous.

Indoor bars and eateries have proven to be risky environments for the novel coronavirus to spread, especially in British Columbia, where a sudden surge in cases led the province to announce stricter measures for restaurant operators. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“That transmission is happening not just because of the drinking; it’s all the things people do in bars. They get up close and personal, they interact with a bunch of different people,” he said.

“We go to bars for a social experience.”

Chagla warned that people would still need to be mindful of physical-distancing if public drinking laws were relaxed in their municipalities, and higher-risk individuals should still avoid those scenarios.

“It would be low-risk, but not zero-risk,” he said.


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