The Case for Drinking in Parks During the Pandemic

The City of Toronto is threatening to fine park drinkers, even though it’s the safest way to socialize in person.
July 9, 2020, 9:30am
park drinking coronavirus

At a time when governments are being pressured to come up with creative solutions to allow people to socialize safely, the City of Toronto is reminding its residents not to drink in outdoor public spaces.

“Leave the beer, wine and spirits at home if you’re planning a trip to a beach or park this weekend,” the city’s Twitter account said on July 4. “You can receive a $300 ticket for consuming alcohol in public spaces.”

The reminder about enforcement comes at a time when jurisdictions around the world are seeing the rewards of reopening responsibly—or the consequences of moving too fast. Both Texas and Florida, now epicenters for the virus, recently shut down bars after seeing huge spikes in cases after they reopened in May. Experts maintain that parks and outdoor spaces are much safer alternatives to hanging out indoors.

While drinking in parks is common in many European cities, it’s far less common in North America. However, the global pandemic has forced change around drinking rules. In New York, to-go windows offering cocktails have become commonplace. And even in tepid Toronto, people are now allowed to order takeout alcohol.

But that leniency hasn’t yet extended to parks in most of North America.

Vancouver’s park board recently decided to delay voting on a motion to launch a pilot project allowing drinking at 10 parks. The board wants to see the plan extended to include parks in more neighbourhoods and to require that liquor be consumed alongside a meal. The meal rule is already applicable in Montreal parks, so long as there are picnic tables around.

According to the National Post, Toronto bylaw officers have issued 46 tickets for alcohol consumption or possession since March 17. Since the end of May, Toronto police have issued 48 tickets pertaining to park drinking bylaws and the provincial Liquor Licence Act, which carries $100 fine per offence.

Toronto police spokeswoman Connie Osborne said officers’ focus is on education.

“Education and reminding people about the measures recommended by public health, is always our first step. However, we will take enforcement action if needed,” she said.

Despite the renewed warnings about enforcement, Toronto Mayor John Tory told the Post he would be willing to review the rules.

“Let’s just take things one day at a time in the course of the pandemic,” he said.

But summer is already here, so perhaps the time to review those rules as opposed to reinforcing them, is now.

Greta Bauer, an epidemiology professor at Western university, said allowing drinking in parks is part of a larger conversation cities need to have about how to foster more responsible social interactions.

“We can’t go back to the frequency and intensity of interpersonal contact that we had prior to the pandemic without spurring an increase in cases again,” she said.

In Quebec, more than 20 people tested positive for COVID-19—an outbreak that was linked to two house parties and a bar. Florida, which did not shut down for its infamous spring break parties, now has more than 223,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a death toll close to 4,000. In contrast, massive Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality taking place across the U.S. have not been linked to outbreaks.

Many were quick to criticize young Torontonians for gathering en masse at the city’s infamous Trinity Bellwoods earlier this spring, but that didn’t lead to an outbreak either, although public urination was an issue.

Bauer said one of the advantages of summer in Canada is that in most places, people can be outside. But the window will only last a few months before people will have to be more isolated again. And many of us aren’t taking vacations this year.

“We can think of the parks, especially in the summer, as an opportunity to have a little bit of a pressure release valve," Bauer said.

Bauer said some options might include having beer garden-types spaces in areas of parks, where staff remind people about distancing or there’s a time limit for how long people can stay and imbibe. She said bars could be allotted more outdoor space, potentially from closed down streets, in order to create safer environments for drinking.

Toronto criminal lawyer Caryma Sa’d said punishing residents for drinking in parks runs the risk of being classist, especially if people don’t have outdoor living space and can’t afford to drink on a patio.

“People who have the fewest options to begin with are being hurt the most,” she said.

She also said if bylaw officers and cops are using discretion, that discretion could be applied unfairly. A report from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association found that people of colour were unfairly targeted for violating physical distancing rules.

Sa’d said Vancouver’s pilot project idea strikes a good balance, allowing people to drink outside safely in designated areas while not subjecting all members of the public to alcohol.

Ontario also announced it is putting an end to delivery and curbside pickup for weed stores, measures that were allowed to deal with the pandemic.

Sa’d said she doesn’t understand the rationale behind it, as the pandemic isn’t over.

“There are small businesses and even larger businesses who have invented a great deal of resources, training, energy, time into establishing policies and procedures for curbside pick up and for delivery,” she said. “This is undoing a kind of solution that had cropped up amid COVID-19, where people could access cannabis without the inconvenience of travelling too far.”

The provincially-run Ontario Cannabis Store will remain able to deliver weed.

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