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

As bars and restaurants begin to reopen in Ontario and other provinces, they continue to see a significant increase in COVID-19 cases going back to closed restaurants, some infectious disease experts say that easing public consumption laws may not be a bad idea.

Earlier this month, the city of Toronto reminded its residents that drinking in public will not be tolerated on any beach or park and, in fact, will face a fine of up to $ 300 for anyone caught doing so.

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After that, Torontonians took to Twitter last weekend to comment on the "strong police presence and box office" they noticed in parks, including Trinity Bellwoods, west of the city center.

Toronto attorney Ryan O & # 39; 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," said O'Connor.

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"If it's nice for me to have a drink on the patio, why isn't it nice to share a bottle of wine with my wife in a park while having a picnic?"

Drinking among friends in large green spaces – where there is much more space to physically distance yourself – can keep people away from dangerously crowded indoor meetings, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, who studies infectious diseases.

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"There are all these broadcast reports at bars and parties. So why don't we mitigate that risk?" Chagla said. "We are going to use the outdoors instead of forcing people into the house for their meetings."

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Toronto moved to Phase 3 of Ontario's reopening plan on Friday, allowing bars and restaurants to serve customers again indoors, under strict physical distance regulations.

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However, closed restaurants have proven to be risky environments for the spread of the new coronavirus, especially in British Columbia, where a sudden increase in cases has led the province to announce stricter measures for restaurant operators.

Heritage needs to be considered

& # 39; Connor said it is not just a matter of personal freedom, but also a matter of equity.

"This is not a problem for someone who has a big yard in Rosedale, where he can take his friends and have a beer," he said, referring to a wealthy Toronto neighborhood.

"It's a completely different story if you live in a 200 square meter apartment or condominium, and the only place you can safely have a drink is in a public park."

& # 39; Connor said that people from "the entire economic spectrum", who are already targeted by the police because of their race or ethnicity, are likely to be fined.

There are already laws that address public drunkenness, mischief and destruction of property, he said, and stricter rules against public consumption due to the pandemic will allow for more direction and punishment in some cases.

"The card is allowed if there is a statutory agent or a police officer asking someone for identification. Whether they are examining whether or not they are in breach of emergency law," said O'Connor.

"There is no interest in fining someone for a beer"

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 113 alcohol-related tickets have been issued in Toronto under the Liquor License Act and the city's park statute.

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

The city's chief spokesman, Brad Ross, addressed the issue several weeks ago in response to a comment on the city's alcohol consumption rules in a Reddit topic, Saying the problem is public intoxication and crowding in public places where people must physically distance themselves.

"The point, frankly, is not someone who likes a cold beer or a glass of wine – it's the excess … parties organized with cases of beer being taken to the beach or to the parks," wrote Ross in the post.

"The city has no interest in fining someone who drinks a beer."

Anyone who drinks or holds an open container of alcohol in a Toronto park or beach can be fined up to $ 300. (Ryan O & # 39; Connor / Twitter)

Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said that being able to drink in public does not necessarily result in people who drink to excess.

"We don't want to ban all behavior just because, in the extreme, there may be problematic examples," he said.

Schwartz said that easing public consumption laws would be useful now, during the short summer months of a long global pandemic.

"Anything that is outdoors – as long as people are not shoulder to shoulder – we should be encouraging."

Regulations across the country

In Ontario, the Alcohol and Gambling Regulations Act prohibits getting drunk in a public place. However, with the exception of Quebec – where residents can only drink in a park 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 provincial drinking laws. Prime Minister Doug Ford said the province would let municipalities regulate where residents could consume alcohol.

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

This week, Vancouver park council commissioners voted to allow alcohol consumption in 22 parks. While the actual implementation may take longer, B.C. is on track to adapt a more relaxed approach to alcohol – similar to that of Quebec.

In campaigning for re-election two years ago, Toronto Mayor John Tory also announced plans to reconsider the city's current drinking rules.

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

"Police officers in the parks will provide education on alcohol law and, when necessary, issue alcohol-related tickets," wrote a city spokesman in an email to CBC Toronto. "The city's coordinated enforcement team remains focused on providing education on the status of physical distance and provincial orders."

While Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster, agrees that alcohol can cause people to relax or ignore the rules of physical distance, indoor environments make these settings especially dangerous.

Covered bars and restaurants have proven to be risky environments for the spread of the new coronavirus, especially in British Columbia, where a sudden increase in cases has led the province to announce stricter measures for restaurant operators. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

"This transmission is happening not just because of drinking; it's all the things that people do in bars. They get close and relate, they interact with a lot of different people," he said.

"We go to bars for a social experience".

Chagla warned that people would still need to be aware of physical distance if public consumption laws were relaxed in their municipalities, and those most at risk should still avoid these scenarios.

"It would be low risk, but not zero risk," he said.

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