Park drinking over indoor gatherings? Experts say finding risk mitigation is key

Park drinking over indoor gatherings? Experts say finding risk mitigation is key

As bars, restaurants and house parties continue to play significant roles in spreading COVID-19, some infectious disease experts in Canada think it’s time to offer a safer alternative to drinking in public.

Cracking a cold one in a park may be a good substitution, they say, if only it wasn’t illegal throughout most of the country.

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, says Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

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

Chagla likens the debate to sexual health scenarios.

While abstinence is the best way to avoid sexually-transmitted infections, asking people to refrain from sex doesn’t work. Making sex safer by wearing a condom is more realistic.

“Drinking in public isn’t by any means a perfect solution, but people want to drink with their friends,” he said. “Why can’t we do it in a way that’s less risky?”

While drinking in public parks is commonplace in many European cities, Canada has been slower to adopt those laws.

Some areas seem to be moving in that direction — or at least crawling towards it.

Park board commissioners in Vancouver this week voted in favour of allowing alcohol consumption in 22 parks around the city, though actual implementation of legal park drinking likely won’t happen until next summer.

Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at UBC, doesn’t see the public drinking option as an either-or scenario where people will choose between enjoying beer in a bar or pilsner in a park.

They’ll likely imbibe in both, he says, adding that alcohol’s disinhibiting properties will lead people to pay less attention to safety precautions.

People are getting increasingly tired of the rules, Taylor said.

“And the longer social distancing drags out, the worse compliance becomes.”

Toronto and Peel Region moved into Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan Friday, allowing bars and restaurants to operate. Patios within the province had reopened during Stage 2.

But indoor eateries and watering holes, as well as private parties, have proven risky environments for COVID-19 spread.

A sudden surge in B.C. cases led the province to announce stricter measures for restaurants, bars and nightclubs. And large clusters of cases were also traced back to parties in the Kelowna area.

Edmonton had 41 cases traced to restaurants last month, and a downtown Calgary establishment shut its doors two weeks ago after six cases originated there.

While Chagla agrees alcohol can cause people to relax or ignore physical distancing, indoor environments makes those settings especially dangerous.

“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,” Chagla said.

“We go to bars for a social experience.”

Being allowed to drink outdoors will take care of some of the risk, but not all.

The dangers associated with public drinking such as reckless behaviour, public drunkenness and the potential for drunk driving, make the topic controversial.

Taylor doesn’t think it’s worth it.

“Inevitably, there’ll be some bad actors who egregiously violate social distancing under the influence of alcohol,” he said. ”My concern is that this could well precipitate a second round of lockdown.

“We’ve seen bored, stressed out people congregating in large groups and partying, and that’s leading to spikes in outbreaks. And alcohol is just going to fuel that, unfortunately.”

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease expert with the University of Alberta, says being able to drink in public doesn’t mean people will drink in excess.

The Winnipeg native has lived in areas with loosened public drinking laws in Texas and South Africa and said issues were minimal there.

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

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

“We need to realize that we’re in this for the long haul and we need to make concessions so people buy into the program that this isn’t just a big conspiracy to suppress any joy in life,” he said.

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

Public drinking rules differ from province to province, and municipalities often have their own bylaws. Drinking or holding an open container of alcohol in a Toronto park, for example, carries a $300 fine.

Chagla says people would need to be mindful of distance if public drinking laws were passed in their municipalities. Higher-risk individuals should still avoid those scenarios, he added.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the Covid-19 situation in Edmonton on Friday March 20, 2020. nbsp;Alberta is reporting it's highest daily number of COVID-19 cases, with 364 new infections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta confirmed 323 COVID-19 cases Tuesday

Central zone active cases at 145

Jay “Chef” Scotian poses for a photo in his new location in Sylvan Lake. Eat Coast Market and Grill will be holding a “Donations for Donairs” fundraiser for Haley Wile on Oct. 24. Photo by Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News
Sylvan Lake business fundraising for local woman paralyzed in car accident

Haley Wile was in a serious car accident which left her paralyzed from the waist down

Brady Durkin. Photo Submitted
Young Sylvan Lake golfer places in the Top 10 in the country

Brady Durkin finished the National Championship tournament in 8th place recently

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on October 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals say Tory effort to set up COVID-19 committee will be a confidence matter

The Tories were originally proposing an ‘anticorruption’ committee

(The Canadian Press)
Alberta-raised Cree actor lands role in Disney’s live-action ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’

Tiger Lily is featured in Disney’s 1953 animated “Peter Pan” film

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday February 4, 2020 in Ottawa. The Alberta government is welcoming news that Ottawa has approved an expansion of the Nova Gas Transmission Ltd. gathering system in Alberta — while condemning federal delays that it says cost this summer’s construction season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta welcomes federal approval of gas pipeline expansion while criticizing delay

Pipeline division owned by Calgary-based TC Energy Corp. will now be required to restore 3,840 hectares of caribou habitat,

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

Alberta Premier Jason Kenny and government house leader Jason Nixon chat before the speech from the throne delivered in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Alberta politicians are to return to the legislature Tuesday with a plan to discuss up to 20 new bills — many of which are focused on the province’s economic recovery. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta legislature to resume Tuesday; focus to be on economic recovery

Opposition house leader Heather Sweet said the NDP will focus on holding Premier Jason Kenney

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Executive Director of Agape Kate Halas (left) receives $1000 from Sgt. Eric Christensen (right) on behalf of Agape. Photo/ Shaela Dansereau.
Former Wetaskiwin Peace Officer wins provincial award; gives back to Wetaskiwin community

Eric Christensen has won the Alberta Association of Community Peace Officers Award of Excellence.

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Most Read