Relaxing public drinking laws would help as bars reopen, infectious disease experts say

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As bars and restaurants begin to reopen across Ontario and other provinces continue to see a significant increase in COVID-19 cases tracing back to indoor restaurants, some infectious disease experts say the relaxation of public laws about drinking alcohol might not be such a bad idea.Earlier this month, the City of Toronto reminded its residents that drinking alcohol in public will not be tolerated on any beach or park and will in fact result in a fine of up to $ 300 for anyone. caught in the act.

Subsequently, Torontonians took to Twitter last weekend to comment on the “heavy police presence and ticket booth” they noticed in parks, including Trinity Bellwoods, west of 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 must reconsider its rules on alcohol consumption.

“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 share a bottle of wine with my wife in a park while we have a picnic.”

Drinking with friends in large green spaces – where there is much more room to physically get away – can keep people away from dangerously crowded indoor gatherings, said Dr Zain Chagla, associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton who studies infectious diseases.

“There are all these transmission reports in bars and house parties. So why not mitigate this risk? Chagla said. “Let’s use the outdoors rather than forcing people inside for their gatherings. ”

Toronto moved to Stage 3 of Ontario’s plan to reopen on Friday, allowing bars and restaurants to resume serving customers indoors under strict physical distancing rules.

But indoor restaurants have proven to be at-risk environments for the spread of the novel coronavirus, particularly in British Columbia, where a sudden increase in cases has led the province to announce tougher measures for restaurant owners.

Equity must be taken into account

O’Connor said it’s not just a matter of personal freedom, but also a matter of fairness.

“That’s okay with someone who has a big yard in Rosedale where they can invite their friends over and have a beer,” he said, referring to a wealthy neighborhood in Toronto.

“It’s a whole different story if you live in a 500 square foot apartment or condo and the only safe place to have a drink is in a public park.

O’Connor said people “from all walks of life” who are already targeted by police because of their race or ethnicity are likely the ones who get ticketed.

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

“Patenting is allowed if there is a status officer or police officer asking someone for identification if they are checking whether or not they are breaking emergency legislation,” O said. ‘Connor.

“No interest in paying someone for a beer”

Since the start of the pandemic, 113 alcohol-related tickets have been issued in Toronto under the Liquor License Act and the City Parks By-law.

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

Chief city spokesman Brad Ross addressed the issue several weeks ago in response to a commentary on the city’s drinking rules in a Reddit thread, saying the problem is public intoxication and overcrowding in public places where people should physically distance themselves.

“The problem, frankly, is not someone who enjoys a cold beer or a glass of wine – it’s the excess… parties organized with cases of beer brought to the beach or to the parks,” said Ross writes in the post.

“The city has no interest in buying tickets for 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’Connor / Twitter)

Dr Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said being able to drink in public doesn’t necessarily lead to binge drinking.

“We don’t want to ban any behavior just because taken to extremes there may be problematic examples,” he said.

Schwartz said relaxing public laws on alcohol consumption would help now, during the short summer months of a long global pandemic.

“Anything on the outside – as long as the people aren’t side by side – we should be encouraging. “

Regulations across the country

In Ontario, the Alcohol and Gaming Control Act prohibits drinking in a public place. However, with the exception of Quebec – where residents are only allowed to drink in a park if accompanied by a meal – drinking outside is prohibited in most parts of Canada.

In April 2019, the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario announced its intention to relax the province’s alcohol laws. Premier Doug Ford has said the province will leave it to municipalities to regulate where residents may consume alcohol.

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

Vancouver Parks Council Commissioners voted this week to allow alcohol consumption in 22 parks. While actual implementation may take longer, British Columbia is in the process of adapting a more relaxed approach to alcohol – similar to Quebec’s.

During his re-election campaign two years ago, Toronto Mayor John Tory also announced his intention to reconsider the city’s current drinking rules.

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

“Law enforcement officers in parks will provide information on alcohol laws and, if necessary, issue tickets related to alcohol consumption,” wrote a spokesperson for the city in an email to CBC Toronto. “The city’s coordinated law enforcement team remains focused on education on physical distancing regulations and provincial ordinances.

While McMaster’s infectious disease expert Chagla agrees that alcohol can cause people to relax or ignore the rules of physical distancing, indoor environments make these environments particularly dangerous.

Indoor bars and restaurants have proven to be at-risk environments for the spread of the novel coronavirus, particularly in British Columbia, where a sudden increase in cases has led the province to announce tougher measures for restaurant owners. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

“This transmission doesn’t just happen through alcohol consumption; that’s all people do in bars. They come together and interact with a bunch of different people, ”he said.

“We go to bars for a social experience. ”

Chagla warned that people should always be aware of physical distancing if public drinking laws are relaxed in their municipalities, and those at high risk should always avoid these scenarios.

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

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