Why Toronto’s winter plan comes as a big relief

I was pretty sure the city would keep outdoor rinks and amenities closed. I was wrong — and that’s good news for the long, dark months to come
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 30, 2020
Free leisure skating will start at Toronto’s 54 outdoor ice rinks on November 28, weather permitting. (Carlos Osorio/CP)



A few weeks ago, I set aside a weekend to winterize my home. Not in the sense of chopping wood and replacing windows, thank God, but in the more mundane ways: items that are mostly used and enjoyed in the warm weather are cleaned and packed away in the shed, and our cold-weather gear comes out of the shed and goes into the garage, for easier access. Some of the stuff is going to be needed no matter what, COVID-19 be damned. I’m still going to need snow shovels, anti-freeze fluid, and salt for the sidewalk, for instance.

But as I rattled around in the shed, much to the irritation of the racoon I fear may think of it as his shed, there were some items I honestly wasn’t sure about. Am I going to need my skates this year or not?

I brought them out, just to be on the safe side, but it was an open question. All hockey leagues are essentially shuttered in my hometown of Toronto; some people I know who play in adult recreational leagues in nearby jurisdictions without lockdowns are still able to practise but not play games or scrimmages. As I’ve written here before, most kid leagues are closed, too. I tweeted Brad Ross, the City of Toronto’s chief communications officer, and asked whether there was any word on outdoor rinks. He said no word yet, but more info would be coming soon. If you check out my tweet, you’ll see that I was skeptical that the news would be good:

I was wrong. Toronto has confirmed that, as soon as weather permits, it will be opening outdoor rinks  — 54 of them. Dozens more could be opened and operated by local communities in public outdoor spaces.

This is very, very good news.

It won’t be quite the carefree skates of pre-COVID-19 yore. There will be a lot more restrictions. Capacity is set at 25 per rink; sessions must be booked online and will last 45 minutes. Masks must be worn while in line and are “strongly recommended” while on the ice. As anyone with much experience with the city’s recreational programs knows, the customer-service experience can be pretty wildly unpredictable, even at the best of times — I’ve had terrific experiences and terrible experiences, and managing a pandemic will likely put downward pressure on the overall performance.

But, still, I don’t know if I can tell you how relieved I was to hear that the city was at least trying. Toronto has a deserved reputation for being a place where fun came to be murdered by a bureaucrat. Is the plan perfect? No. Could it go further? Sure. But the fact that the city isn’t planning on using flamethrowers to melt any patch of ice lest some naugthy citizen/potential-COVID-incubator even consider lacing ’em up was a pleasant surprise.

It’s not just skating, to be clear. The city’s winter plan includes hiking trails, tobogganing hills (the toboggans also made the trip from the shed to the garage), and disc-golf locations. (Note to self: Google “disc golf” after filing column.) Toronto will also be opening or maintaining more public washrooms than normal for a winter, in recognition of the fact that people will likely spend more time than usual this year congregating outdoors during the long, dark months.

I confess that I’ll miss some of my usual winter traditions. Watching a hockey game on a big screen at my local pub — hopefully from a table close to the fireplace — is a luxury I won’t deny I’m sad to lose. But with COVID-19 cases in Ontario, and particularly the Greater Toronto Area, looking grim, the odds of restaurants and bars opening up any time soon for indoor service seem slim. Ditto going to a movie, concert, or sporting event (Go Leafs Go, sigh).

So what else are we going to do? Might as well go for a hike or a skate.

The city has done a difficult thing here, something that governments all over have struggled with. It’s tried to strike a balance. The fastest way to crush COVID-19 would simply be to order all of us to stay in our damn homes — allowing a single person to make one trip a week to buy supplies — until cases were back down to a sustainable level. And then to enforce that order, zealously. I’m not advocating this, to be clear, but we have seen these kinds of hard restrictions elsewhere, including in liberal democracies. As my colleague Chris Selley recently noted, just because these hard restrictions seem impossible here (in the land that struggles to deal with one uncooperative griller) doesn’t mean they can’t be implemented successfully.

But doing so comes at a cost — to mental health, especially. The Toronto plan talks a lot about physical fitness. Skating, hiking and, uh, disc-golfing are all good for you (I admit I’m assuming on that last one). The real benefit, though, is going to derive from getting out and being somewhere other than your home. From seeing new faces and people, even if they’re masked and six feet apart. For those of us who live in small homes, or those of us in larger homes with small children, whatever calories get burned on the rink are of less interest than simply escaping the confines of four walls (and the people within them) for a time.

Even if that time comes in 45-minute chunks, by reservation. So while praying for a crushed curve, also nudge your deity of choice for a mild, sunny winter, around a nice steady -2 or so. Because that’s another balance we’ll have to try to strike: the perfect temperature to keep the ice frozen and your extremities attached.

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