Public-health experts still don’t understand the public

OPINION: Park drinking is just one example — almost every major decision we’ve seen in this pandemic has revealed a lack of insight into human nature
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 10, 2021
Toronto has indicated that drinking alcohol in public will remain illegal but that it will not make enforcing the law a priority. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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A local park was a scene of indescribable criminal mayhem on Saturday. I had gone there with my wife, kids, and rambunctious dog to take a big walk and to give the children and canine a place to blow off their vast energy reserves in the ultimately futile hope that that would make life inside our house quieter. The plan was simply to walk around and keep a respectful distance from others while still enjoying a reasonably pleasant day and some fresh air. We hadn’t counted on witnessing so much crime.

And yet, virtually from our arrival, it was everywhere we looked. There were the three young guys standing around having a few laughs while drinking beer. There was the young couple drinking wine — and they were being so brazen about it, too. It wasn’t even in a brown paper bag! That’s how I can assure you that it was a white wine. There was also a larger group of young adults drinking, well, something from red disposable cups. I confess to not being totally clear what they were drinking, but they just seemed to have a criminal air about them.

As there are always some who struggle to grasp the sarcasm in writing, I should note now that, yes, I am indeed being sarcastic. Everyone at the park, one of the large ones attached to Toronto’s ravine system, was behaving themselves, even though they were technically breaking the law by having alcohol in public. There were other kinds of law-breaking, too — I saw a few small bonfires roaring near picnic sites. I’m amazed the city didn’t call in a few CF-18s to make gun runs on such reckless law-breakers! But despite the criminal chaos — actually, largely because of it — it was an absolutely delightful afternoon; the young wine-drinking couple made my dog’s day by giving him some cold cuts. (This led to his desperately trying to pull me, the leash holder, to every picnic so he could see what it had to offer.)

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When not being dragged by a basset hound, though, everywhere I looked, I saw people acting mostly responsibly, having a good time, maintaining vital social and emotional bonds, and seeing their families in an outdoor environment where the risk of transmitting the virus is minimal. For those who were there and live in small, confined apartments and condos — not something you can tell at a glance, but, statistically, no doubt a large portion of those present — the hours at the park were probably the best part of the weekend. We should be encouraging as much of this as possible. The best we can say of our public-health authorities is that they might, if pinned down by sharp questioning, grudgingly tolerate it.

Yes, yes, I’m sure there were some people present who were not acting in the most responsible manner. We saw two large groups, in particular, that were clearly having a social event, not a single-family outing, and there is a tiny but technically real danger of transmitting COVID-19 in such a situation. From a perspective of pure public-health efficacy, you’d want those people staying home.

But we are human beings, to state the obvious, and we do not operate as public-health robots. A picnic in a park, maybe with a few tallboys of beer tucked away in a cooler, isn’t the perfect way to beat a pandemic, but it’s probably about as good as you’ll get if you’re stuck with humans as your population group. (Which we are, to be clear. As far as we know.)

If there has been one missing ingredient from our public-health response during this long crisis — okay, there’ve been many missing ingredients, but I had to pick one — it would be the bizarre failure to treat people like people. An understanding of human nature has seemed to be missing from almost every major decision we’ve seen as this pandemic has ground on. It’s often said that, while every tech company needs its own in-house experts, you never, ever let them anywhere near the customers. The techies are very, very good at tech and very, very bad at managing customers. You need someone else to act as a mediator between the two. In a pandemic, public health’s customer is the public itself. We need a mediator, desperately. Someone who can explain public-health imperatives to the public in terms the public can understand and, apparently, someone who can explain human beings to the public-health experts.

In theory, we have those mediators: elected officials — the people the public chooses via our democratic processes to represent them and to whom the public-health experts report and offer advice. The problem, of course, is that our politicians are humans, too. They have their own priorities and agendas. If they showed up at the park, instead of seeing a bunch of people having a good time in a reasonably responsible way, they’d see what I pretended to see at the top of this piece: Criminals! Criminals everywhere!

In Toronto, where I live, city officials are struggling to figure out how to make it legal to consume alcohol in a park, something that is legal in most other comparable cities. Here in Toronto, we first considered a pilot project that would have seen drinking certain kinds of alcohol permitted in certain places and at certain hours. (I got the giggles when I saw that one of the proposed criteria was a drink’s alcohol-percentage content — I had this image of stern cops and bylaw officers frantically googling specific beers, wines, and spirits to conclude whether something was legal or criminal, with a .01 per cent ABV difference separating “all good” from “law-breaking.”)

Eventually, a compromise was reached: drinking alcohol in public will remain illegal, but we just won’t enforce the law. This is actually a sign of progress at city hall, as far as things go, which is about as damning an indictment of city hall as one could imagine. “We can’t figure out how to change our stupid laws that people are routinely ignoring anyway, so we’ve chosen to simply not have the law enforced” is more a monument to failure and dysfunction than a profile in courage, but, hey. I’ll take it.

That’s not to pick on the city, of course. We’ve also got a provincial government that, despite the best advice it’s getting and, frankly, common sense, is keeping such public amenities as tennis courts and golf courses closed. In an infuriating article in the Toronto Star, a credible explanation for this was offered for the first time — the government fears the optics of golf courses being open before schools. You can squint your eyes and see how that might make sense to a politician who mostly thinks of the world in terms of optics. But unsquint those lids, and you just see a ridiculous decision that has no backing in science, is crushing an entire industry that has only a few months each year to make money, and actually further compounds the isolation and stress of parents struggling to educate their children at home. You know what my six-year-old and I would love to go do? Play a round of golf! He has little clubs and everything. But we can’t. So that I won’t be offended that golf courses are open before schools.

This is absurd. Schools are enclosed indoor environments where large groups of people from many households mix and breathe one another’s air. Golf … is none of those things. But they’re lumped together … because optics.

Our struggles to deal with the pandemic effectively make a lot more sense when you realize the people running the joint, at every level of government, don’t really know what they’re doing and aren’t governed by the same priorities as the rest of us. Right? The pandemic has laid bare very, very big and serious problems. And I sometimes wonder whether the system is broken to the point it might not be capable of fixing itself.

It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Maybe even in a park.

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