Ontario’s government wants you to know that 2021 is the “year of the staycation” — so much so that it uses variations on the phrase multiple times in the provincial budget. Tucked in between the debt-management plans and fiscal assumptions is an acknowledgment that Ontarians need something to do while they live with COVID-19. In a year in which the government has increased control over how we spend our time, it tracks that it should also invest in helping us use it safely. Here are three potentially schedule-filling things covered in the budget.
In the spring, Ontarians were told not to leave big cities for cottage country, but the province has changed its tune: it’s high time to travel Ontario, the government says. The headline initiative here is also the most vague — the province is “exploring ways” to cover up to 20 per cent of “eligible” Ontario tourism expenses for residents. There is $150 million earmarked for the initiative, which is inspired by a similar program that existed in France during the Great Recession. But the plan isn’t ready to be rolled out yet. The government is still in the consultation phase and will rely on public-health advice for a start date.
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To beef up the tourist’s experience, there’s the $100 million Community Building Fund, which supports tourism, cultural, and sport organizations. There’s also the plan to “enhance Ontario parks,” which includes $6 million to electrify more campsites and build more roofed accommodations. This is in addition to the $9 million Reconnect Festival and Event Program, which helps municipalities host pandemic-friendly events — including “holiday parades with drive-by static floats, drive-in music concerts and movies, holiday tree lightings, and New Year’s Eve displays that light-up iconic buildings.”
The government has made it easier and cheaper to buy and sell alcohol throughout the pandemic — and that will continue. The budget mentions the decision to extend outdoor patios and outlines a plan to extend (and eventually make permanent) the program that allows bars and restaurants to sell alcohol as part of takeaway orders. It also includes a freeze on beer tax and mark-up rates until 2022 and a proposal to retroactively cancel the increase in wine-tax rates that was postponed in June. The province instructed the LCBO to cancel an upcoming scheduled mark-up, as well.
The budget mentions that the government is “modernizing” its alcohol-permitting program — including by revising the meaning of “retail store” and “permit” to minimize red tape. It doesn’t seem, though, as if any major changes — such as allowing spirit sales in grocery stores — are imminent.
The great thing about the internet is that you can access it from home. The province made it clear that online activity is a priority for pandemic living: the big-ticket announcement here is an additional $680 million over four years to improve broadband connectivity. In some smaller items, the province utilizes the internet as an entertainment tool. The Digital Main Street program (a $57 million program that helps Ontario businesses shift to internet sales) is aimed at helping Ontarians shop online. The Reconnect Festival and Event Program also includes funding for digital activities — for example, virtual Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Queen’s Park also announced its intention to give the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario the power to manage its iGaming online market, announced last year. The province hopes to foster an “exciting gaming experience” in Ontario, and the AGCO will act as the intermediary between private internet-gaming companies and the government. The Tories also took the opportunity to ask the federal government to legalize single-event sports wagering, which would “help support the growth of a competitive online gambling market.”