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Park drinking over indoor gatherings? Experts say finding risk mitigation is key

MELISSA COUTO ZUBER, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Jul 31st, 2020

As bars, restaurants and house parties continue to play significant roles in spreading COVID-19, some infectious disease experts in Canada think it’s time to offer a safer alternative to drinking in public.

Cracking a cold one in a park may be a good substitution, they say, if only it wasn’t illegal throughout most of the country.

Drinking among friends in sprawling green spaces – where there’s much more room to physically distance – can keep people away from dangerously crowded indoor gatherings, says Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“There’s all these reports of transmission in bars and house parties. So why don’t we mitigate that risk?” he said. “Let’s use the outdoors rather than forcing people indoors for their gatherings.”

Chagla likens the debate to sexual health scenarios.

While abstinence is the best way to avoid sexually-transmitted infections, asking people to refrain from sex doesn’t work. Making sex safer by wearing a condom is more realistic.

“Drinking in public isn’t by any means a perfect solution, but people want to drink with their friends,” he said. “Why can’t we do it in a way that’s less risky?”

While drinking in public parks is commonplace in many European cities, Canada has been slower to adopt those laws.

Some areas seem to be moving in that direction – or at least crawling towards it.

Park board commissioners in Vancouver this week voted in favour of allowing alcohol consumption in 22 parks around the city, though actual implementation of legal park drinking likely won’t happen until next summer.

Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at UBC, doesn’t see the public drinking option as an either-or scenario where people will choose between enjoying beer in a bar or pilsner in a park.

They’ll likely imbibe in both, he says, adding that alcohol’s disinhibiting properties will lead people to pay less attention to safety precautions.

People are getting increasingly tired of the rules, Taylor said.

“And the longer social distancing drags out, the worse compliance becomes.”

Toronto and Peel Region moved into Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan Friday, allowing bars and restaurants to operate. Patios within the province had reopened during Stage 2.

But indoor eateries and watering holes, as well as private parties, have proven risky environments for COVID-19 spread.

A sudden surge in B.C. cases led the province to announce stricter measures for restaurants, bars and nightclubs. And large clusters of cases were also traced back to parties in the Kelowna area.

Edmonton had 41 cases traced to restaurants last month, and a downtown Calgary establishment shut its doors two weeks ago after six cases originated there.

While Chagla agrees alcohol can cause people to relax or ignore physical distancing, indoor environments makes those settings especially dangerous.

“That transmission is happening not just because of the drinking, it’s all the things people do in bars – they get up close and personal, they interact with a bunch of different people,” Chagla said.

“We go to bars for a social experience.”

Being allowed to drink outdoors will take care of some of the risk, but not all.

The dangers associated with public drinking such as reckless behaviour, public drunkenness and the potential for drunk driving, make the topic controversial.

Taylor doesn’t think it’s worth it.

“Inevitably, there’ll be some bad actors who egregiously violate social distancing under the influence of alcohol,” he said. “My concern is that this could well precipitate a second round of lockdown.

“We’ve seen bored, stressed out people congregating in large groups and partying, and that’s leading to spikes in outbreaks. And alcohol is just going to fuel that, unfortunately.”

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease expert with the University of Alberta, says being able to drink in public doesn’t mean people will drink in excess.

The Winnipeg native has lived in areas with loosened public drinking laws in Texas and South Africa and said issues were minimal there.

“We don’t want to outlaw all behaviour just because taken to the extreme there can be problematic examples,” he said.

Schwartz says easing up on public drinking laws would be useful right now, during the short summer months of a lengthy global pandemic.

“We need to realize that we’re in this for the long haul and we need to make concessions so people buy into the program that this isn’t just a big conspiracy to suppress any joy in life,” he said.

“Anything that is outdoors – as long as people aren’t shoulder to shoulder – we should be encouraging.”

Public drinking rules differ from province to province, and municipalities often have their own bylaws. Drinking or holding an open container of alcohol in a Toronto park, for example, carries a $300 fine.

Chagla says people would need to be mindful of distance if public drinking laws were passed in their municipalities. Higher-risk individuals should still avoid those scenarios, he added.

“It would be low risk, but not zero-risk,” he said.

BLM protest arrest of Black trans woman charged with assault

BT Toronto | posted Friday, Jul 31st, 2020

Protesters from Black Lives Matter Toronto and Not Another Black Life gathered outside 14 Division Thursday night to protest the arrest of a Black trans woman who Toronto police have charged with assault.

In a release, police say the charges stem from an incident on Thursday in a residence in the College and Bathurst streets area.

Police responded to an assault call at the home around 1:35 p.m. They say what began as a dispute in the home escalated and an “assault and threats took place between two individuals.”

Moka Dawkins, 30, of Toronto, was arrested and charged with one count each of assault, uttering threats of bodily harm and failure to comply with probation.

Police say she has been given access to legal counsel and is scheduled to appear in court on Friday.

Posts on social media began calling for support for Dawkins on Thursday evening and protesters were heard chanting “let her go” outside 14 Division later that night.

WE fallout expected to continue as MPs seek more info, witnesses

TERESA WRIGHT THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Jul 31st, 2020

OTTAWA — The WE controversy that has been dogging the Liberals is expected to continue to follow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government after Trudeau’s appearance before a House of Commons committee Thursday.

Opposition MPs on the Commons finance committee are now pushing to hear from more junior staffers in the prime minister’s office, and demanding access to cabinet documents.

They want more detailed answers about why WE Charity began working on and incurring expenses for the now-abandoned student-volunteering program on May 5, when it had not yet been approved by cabinet.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford told the committee that another Trudeau aide talked to WE that same day, though she said he referred WE to the public service to talk about anything substantial.

WE’s Craig and Marc Kielburger have said those permanent officials told WE it could incur expenses before being awarded the agreement.

They said they wanted to get the program going quickly, and started work knowing they could lose money if cabinet said no.

In the rare appearance by the prime minister at the committee Thursday, Trudeau said he had initially pushed back when he learned the public service had chosen WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant in early May.

He said he knew his own and his family’s long-standing ties to the WE organization would lead to significant scrutiny and wanted to ensure all due diligence was done.

The prime minister testified that he didn’t learn WE had been chosen by the public service to run the program until May 8, which was just hours before the arrangement was to be taken to cabinet for approval.

That’s when, Trudeau said, he put the brakes on the deal.

“WE knew that the selection of WE Charity would be closely scrutinized. We wanted to make sure that the process and decision were the best possible in the circumstances, so I decided to pull the CSSG proposal from the cabinet agenda for May 8 so that further work could be done,” Trudeau told the committee.

“We pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be doing the right thing, the way.”

The public service later came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said.

Telford testified that the civil servants presented it as a “binary choice” — either they moved ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or they wouldn’t go ahead with it at all.

Trudeau acknowledged his family’s involvement with WE: his mother, brother and wife have participated in and spoken at WE events, and have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, although he testified the amounts were not previously known to him.

He stressed that he did not have any conversations with the Kielburger brothers during this time and that WE Charity did not receive any preferential treatment by him or anyone else in the government.

He also says he didn’t talk to his staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in the volunteering program until May 8, although he has since learned policy staff in his office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments, and they knew that WE Charity was under consideration to run the effort.

The prime minister and Telford also both noted that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s work with WE, including a podcast on mental wellness, has been unpaid except for expenses covered by the organization, all of which had been cleared by the ethics commissioner.

The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses.

Dion is already investigating Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for not recusing themselves during cabinet discussions about the WE deal.

Meanwhile, the Canada Student Service Grant is now unlikely to be part of the $9-billion student aid program Ottawa is rolling out this summer, Trudeau said, adding that he regrets how the whole affair has unfolded.

Male seriously injured in North York shooting

BT Toronto | posted Friday, Jul 31st, 2020

A man was seriously injured in a shooting in North York late Thursday night.

Police responded to several calls for a shooting in the area of Falstaff and Springview avenues shortly after 11:30 p.m.

Callers reported hearing multiple gunshots and people were reportedly screaming and fleeing from the area. There were also reports of vehicles fleeing from the scene.

Police found a male victim suffering from gunshot wounds and his injuries are considered serious.

A nearby residential building was also damaged due to the gunfire.

Police say they believe the suspects fled the scene northbound on Jane Street in a white Honda Civic. No other descriptions were immediately available.

Van strikes multiple cars in Etobicoke, no serious injuries reported

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, Jul 30th, 2020

Multiple cars were damaged when a man driving a van struck them on Wednesday evening in Etobicoke.

Police say a white panel van hit several cars in the Valhalla Inn Road and The East Mall area shortly after 7 p.m. and then fled the scene at a high speed.

The van was then found abandoned and the driver ran away.

The driver is described as a white male, between 35 to 40 years old with short brown hair and an olive complexion. He was last seen dressed in all black shorts, shoes and t-shirt.

Const. David Hopkinson says multiple people were hurt but their injuries are considered minor.

Roads are closed in the area for the investigation.

Toronto to challenge provincial Bill 184 in court

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, Jul 30th, 2020

Toronto City Council has voted to take the provincial government to court over Bill 184.

Tenant advocates say the bill will make it easier for landlords to obtain evictions once the COVID-19 crisis eases, leading to mass evictions which will harm the city’s most vulnerable residents.

The bill, also known as the Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, allows the Landlord and Tenant Board to order up to 12 months’ rent in compensation for eviction notices issued in bad faith, or where the landlord does not allow the tenant to move back in after renovations or repairs.

Renters and activists have been protesting and petitioning this bill since it was first proposed months ago.

Trudeau to testify Thursday on WE Charity controversy

TERESA WRIGHT, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Jul 30th, 2020

Justin Trudeau will be in the hot seat Thursday for a rare prime ministerial appearance at a House of Commons committee, facing questions about his role in the simmering controversy involving the WE organization.

MPs on the finance committee will grill Trudeau about the events that led to his Liberal cabinet asking the WE Charity to oversee a $912-million program that provides grants to students and graduates for volunteering.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford was also scheduled to testify today.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre warned that if the prime minister doesn’t fully answer questions from opposition MPs about his own and his family’s ties to the WE organization, they will call him back again.

“We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Poilievre told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday.

The Conservatives say many of their questions for Trudeau will revolve around hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees paid to members of his family for appearing at WE events, along with related expenses.

WE had previously confirmed that Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, was paid about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020 and his brother Alexandre has been paid $32,000 for eight events.

WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger testified Tuesday that Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has participated in seven WE Days and received an average of $3,618 for each event, to cover her expenses. That works out to $25,326 in total.

The Conservatives are now calling on federal ethics czar Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include travel expenses WE covered in addition to speaking fees for his mother, wife and brother.

“What else is he hiding in this affair?” Poilievre said Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Dion sent letters to Conservative and NDP MPs saying he is widening his investigations into trips Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his family participated in that were sponsored by the WE organization.

Morneau told the Commons finance committee last week he had freshly repaid WE Charity more than $41,000 in expenses for trips he and his family took in 2017 to see and take part in some of the organization’s humanitarian work.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he believes details that have emerged since the program was announced suggest the deal awarding WE the Canada Student Services Grant program was never about students, but about helping close friends of the Liberals and of Trudeau.

“That is deeply troubling,” he said Wednesday in Burnaby, B.C.

“A prime minister should work for people, should work for Canadians, should not be working in the interest of enriching his or her family or his or her close friends.”

Ontario government to announce plans for back-to-school in September today

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Jul 30th, 2020

The Ontario government is due to announce plans for reopening schools in September later today.

The announcement comes just six weeks before back-to-school season and a week before the province’s 72 school boards were initially asked to outline their plans for the academic year.

The province had previously asked school boards to prepare for three scenarios come September: regular in-class instruction with physical-distancing measures in place, full-time remote learning, and a hybrid model blending both approaches.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce initially expressed a preference for the hybrid model, which would see no more than 15 students in class attending on alternating days or weeks.

More recently, he expressed a preference for full-time, in-class learning.

Government opposition critics, school boards and unions alike have said that if classes are to resume full time, the province will have to significantly increase spending on education so that staff and students can be kept safe from COVID-19.

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