End the absurd restrictions on outdoor activities

OPINION: Doug Ford should never have closed outdoor amenities. The least he can do is open them up again
By Matt Gurney - Published on Apr 26, 2021
Tennis and basketball courts, golf courses, and soccer fields are all restricted in Ontario. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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We are probably now far enough removed from the absolutely chaotic recent events at Queen's Park that all that was necessary to say about the top-level crisis — the clear meltdown in leadership by the Ontario provincial government — has been said. That leaves us with the chance, the dust having partially settled, to look at some lower-order "items of concern" that should be addressed. So let's do that: though Ford buckled and retreated on the most egregious of his government's recent mistakes, there is still more he can and should do. Outdoor amenities should be opened. The fact that they are not open is outrageous.

I don't need to be told about the danger of the third wave. I get it. And I believe all of us should sacrifice and dig deep and contribute in meaningful ways to bringing it under control. But I stress that qualifier — meaningful. I'll continue working from home, with my kids at home doing virtual school. I'll limit my shopping trips to truly essential business and avoid unnecessary travel. I'll maintain distance from people outside my household while on trips I can't avoid, or when I’m out walking the dog. I will not host or attend indoor gatherings. But I simply cannot muster any defence of the decision to close outdoor amenities. 

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The science is clear and has been for some time: outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is possible but exceptionally rare. The outdoors are dramatically safer than the indoors by simple virtue of improved airflow. During the initial panicky moments of the first wave, when we didn't truly understand what we were dealing with, shutting down some outdoor amenities might have made sense, if only as a precaution.

By the summer of 2020, and even during the second wave in early 2021, we understood enough about COVID-19 to allow people to meet outdoors for exercise or even just to socialize. This was understood to be safe and indeed probably a net positive. We are social creatures. A chance to get outside, see friendly faces (at a distance, yes), and just get fresh air is good for both our physical and mental health. If we were robots designed only to defeat pandemics, obviously, we'd all just retreat to our rooms, subsist on water and protein paste, and emerge after three weeks into a city and province largely free of COVID-19. But we aren't. We're people. And we have to design our pandemic policies with that unavoidable fact in mind.

In this third wave, we aren't doing it. Yes, the Ford government backed off of its broad new police powers, after the police, virtually as one, rejected them. And wary of backlash among parents, it also backed off of restrictions on playgrounds. But picnic tables? Golf courses? Soccer fields? Basketball and tennis courts? All are closed.

It's the absurdity that rankles most. On Sunday, a sunny if cool day in Toronto, I took my kids to a local playground. For an hour, I let them run around on the equipment and in the nearby field to disperse all the energy they would otherwise have released into the four walls of our house. As I watched them run and play, my eyes drifted over to the rest of the outdoor area, which includes park benches, a couple of baseball diamonds, a soccer field, and basketball courts. And I began trying to determine whether the gathered people — there were maybe two dozen others scattered around the large area — were compliant with the new emergency orders or not.

The guy doing laps of the soccer field, I figured, was probably in bounds. He was clearly engaging in exercise outdoors, and he was masked and alone, so that was probably okay. Ditto a few groups of children playing on the various playgrounds (there are several in this complex). The kids are permitted, and the supervising adults were all masked and maintaining distance from the other adults (this included myself and my two). So we were probably all in the clear. 

Then there were the borderline cases. There were three boys, maybe 12 years old or so, riding their bikes around the perimeter of the field. I hesitated on them a bit. If they were biking solo, they'd be fine, but they were pretty obviously there together, and I don't think they were from the same household. I rolled my eyes at the insanity of my own thought process, but I found myself pondering whether their cycling formation was loose enough to count as distanced. An older man out for a walk stopped for a few minutes to rest on a bench. I honestly wasn't sure that he was allowed to. The walk? No problem. Sitting on a park bench to rest during said walk? That was more dicey.

And then, of course, there were the outright rulebreakers. The rebels! The scofflaws! This included a group of three couples walking around the soccer field together. I saw them arrive and join up to begin their laps. As often happens, the men fell in with the men and the women with the women, and that meant they were gathering with people outside their own household. They weren't even masked. We can't have that! There was also a fairly large group of teenagers just standing around in a big group together, probably for warmth as much as anything else. (In the traditions of teenagers everywhere, none of them were dressed appropriately for the surprisingly chilly weather.) None were masked. Any passing officer would have had grounds to disperse the teens — or ticket them. 

But what jumped out at me most were the basketball courts. The hoops are gone. Removed. They're sitting in storage in some city facility, awaiting the day when we can play basketball again. 

It's absurd. I've already used that word, but I can't think of a better one. We can quibble with individual choices — maybe the three couples out for a walk should have been masked — but they're still trying to do the right thing. They're getting the social interaction that they need in a safe way, out of doors. The teenagers were probably violating about a dozen public-health rules, but again, they were gathering outdoors. Denying people that age at least some opportunity to bond and socialize isn't just cruel, it's also futile. They're going to. Every adult that has ever been a teenager — huh, that's all of them, come to think of it — intuitively knows this. As a teen, I would sneak out of the house, and that's when there wasn't a plague. 

Those kids are going to meet up and socialize. We're lucky they're doing it outdoors, where the odds of transmission are minimized. (Well, fine. One couple was, ahem, bent on maximizing their transmission risk. But again, that's something we aren't going to avoid.) 

Ontario has had terrible communications throughout this pandemic. As recently covered here at some length, of late, it has also had absolutely appalling decision-making. Some of the worst decisions have been walked back, but not all. Let people walk, let old men rest on benches, put up the damn hoops, remove all ambiguity to make clear that all of these things are absolutely fine, and continue to encourage mask use and distancing. Oh, and also, open the damn golf courses, too. And the tennis courts. Let the teens gather.

When this is all over, we're going to have inquiries and studies and reviews, and we will learn surprising things. Maybe some things will look different with hindsight. But shutting down outdoor amenities just as the weather starts to improve doesn't require a review or a blue-ribbon panel or a task force led by a retired judge. It's stupid. It's obviously stupid. And it's not too late to change it.

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