COVID-19 is changing how Ontario thinks about booze

OPINION: A generation ago — heck, even a few years ago — we would have been shocked to see how the province has adjusted its approach to liquor
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 07, 2020
In response to COVID-19, the Ontario government has amended liquor laws to allow for more home-delivery alternatives. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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This is a column about the pandemic and the changes it has brought. But first, I need to tell you a story that has nothing at all to do with the pandemic. So bear with me a moment.

A few years ago, in the Before, a very dear friend of mine, an American, was in Toronto. We had not seen each other in some time, and I went to her hotel as soon as she got there from the airport. She came down to meet me, and we chatted about what we should do. Dinner? A bar? A patio? And she said, hey, if it’s easier, why don’t we just go to that convenience store over there — she pointed — and then just have a cooler or a beer in this park right here?

For her, an American, it was a perfectly logical suggestion. For me, an Ontarian, my brain immediately locked up. Should I just smile and suggest a bar, or should I actually explain that her benign, innocuous suggestion was not only impossible — as the convenience store sold no alcohol — but also illegal, as drinking any such impossible alcohol in a public park was against the law?

It didn’t matter; we had a lovely catch-up. But I often think back to that memory and laugh. It was once said of the Americans and the British that they were two peoples separated by a common language, and Canadians and Americans are probably even more alike. But our booze laws, at least in this province, sure do stand apart.

Now back to the pandemic: COVID-19 is an accelerator as much as a change-bringer. The terrible toll of the pandemic probably will bring about changes that would not have occurred otherwise, of course, but in other areas, it will likely accelerate changes that were already underway. Some of these are big, big trends: patterns in international trade and protectionism, the role of the state in a greater share of the economy and our lives, tensions between office work and working from home (and the changes to real estate that might bring).

But some of these issues are kinda small. Booze (and pot) in Ontario, for one.

We’d seen changes on those fronts already. Five years ago, almost to the day, Ontario rolled out beer purchasing at select grocery stores across the province. I remember this mostly for the excruciating photo ops: every Ontario Liberal, it seemed, was required to clutch a handful of carefully selected, inoffensive local brands while grinning like a pageant contestant who senses they’re not going to make the cut. A year later, the government allowed wine to be sold more broadly in grocery stores, too.

This was mind-blowing, even for me — someone who’d grown up after the bad old days of Ontarians purchasing carefully paper-bagged booze by scribbling their order down on a little sheet of paper. I’d heard of such bizarre things but come of age in a more enlightened time, when the provincial liquor-sales monopoly would mail out glossy ads listing its latest special (while also encouraging you to drink responsibly, you lush, you). The Ontario of my twenties was a vastly friendlier place for alcohol sales and consumption than the one my parents had grown up in. The changes of my thirties — individual cans of beer at my local Sobeys, by gum! — seemed almost too good to be true.

Then came the pandemic, and even wilder things. During the first wave, I ordered a beer with a meal for delivery, and ... it came. To my house. A man dropped a beer off at my house. It took a devastating world-wide public-health crisis to bring it about, but it happened.

I took a photo of it for posterity. Marijuana, for those who partake, also had intermittent delivery options from private retailers (those private retailers were themselves already a product of a liberalized version, no pun intended, of the original, more restrictive Liberal cannabis plan). Though there doesn’t seem to be any real momentum gathering for beer in convenience stores, the premier of Ontario and the mayor of Toronto did broach the idea, carefully, of allowing drinking in public. It’s still a vague, maybe-for-later discussion, but it’s happening.

Even against the backdrop of a remarkable year, this is still pretty incredible stuff. Ontario saw more modernization of its booze laws between, say, 2015 and 2019 than it had in the decades before that and seemed set to have even more in 2020 than in the previous four years. Indeed, it was remarkable to see an actual setback to the cause of further liberalization in recent days; an LCBO proposal to provide home delivery was paused after outcry from retailers and politicians alike. The concern was that booze deliveries might be one of the only lifelines keeping struggling restaurants afloat in locked-down areas.

That’s probably true enough, but think about how remarkable that is. Imagine going back in time to when beer was just starting to hit grocery-store shelves and telling yourself that, in five years, the government would be asking the LCBO not to compete with restaurants for the booze home-delivery market. Your younger self would be shocked. And then confused when you next told them to invest in Zoom, Pfizer, and Moderna in exactly four years but refused to explain why.

COVID-19 has killed many of our fellow citizens. Many more will die before this pandemic is behind us. It will change the world — it has changed the world. Some of those changes will be bad, but some will be good. One day, when the border is open and my friend can visit Toronto again, perhaps we’ll be able to have that beer in a park. Even if we have to order it via a food app.

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