The sight of thousands of people gathered in a downtown Toronto park as the city and Ontario are still struggling to get the COVID-19 outbreak under control was disconcerting to say the least.
Equally troubling was the response: a chorus of shaming, name-calling and threatening everything from a police crackdown to park shutdowns.
When thousands of urbanites, stir crazy after eight weeks of confinement in tiny, yardless condos and apartments, flock to a green space such as Trinity Bellwoods Park for some fresh air, as happened on Saturday, there are two ways to respond:
1) Damn, those hipsters/covidiots/insert-condescending-moniker-here, are selfish. We should self-righteously post photos of them on social media and fine/jail them for not respecting gathering and physical-distancing rules.
2) Obviously, there is not enough public space to meet the needs of residents so we had better figure out how to free up more space, as well as do a better job of managing the space we have to ensure the safety of citizens.
One of the many truisms this pandemic has exposed is that the cities we have are not the cities we need.
Toronto, as with everything related to COVID-19, has been slow to admit and act on it.
Vancouver had its socio-cultural park crisis several weeks ago when crowds flocked to English Bay and Kits Beach as the weather turned warm.
Montreal had a similar outbreak of angst when a couple of its downtown green spaces, Parc La Fontaine and Parc Mont-Royal, were also perceived to be overrun.
So what did B.C. health officials, led by Bonnie Henry, do? Urge people to keep going outside, all the while reminding them to not congregate.
What did the City of Montreal do? Open up an additional 1,200 kilometres of bike lanes, double the width of sidewalks and ban parking at parks so locals had more space to walk and play.
In other words, they responded with education and alternatives, not virtue-shaming.
On Saturday, the City of Toronto issued an unusual press release calling the behaviour of citizens “unacceptable,” with its Medical Officer of Health adding “selfish and dangerous.” Premier Doug Ford and Mayor John Tory had similar messages.
I understand that the photos of people in Trinity Bellwoods were disappointing today. It was a beautiful day & we all want to enjoy our city together, but this could be selfish & dangerous behaviour that could set us back. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/cKVj0DdBhh— Dr. Eileen de Villa (@epdevilla) May 23, 2020
Public health is all about harm reduction – keeping people as safe as possible, while respecting their circumstances. Calling out people’s perceived moral failings doesn’t fit that philosophy.
What all the park “incidents” – Kits Beach, Parc La Fontaine, Trinity Bellwoods – have in common is that they clearly involved young people. That teens and twentysomethings feel invulnerable and tend to flout rules is no surprise.
It’s also clear that public-health messages aren’t reaching them. That must be fixed because this is the demographic that will be the first back to work when we ease restrictions on retail shops and restaurants.
The way to get people to respect physical distancing and limits on group size is not with contempt and condemnation.
We don’t need to send in the cavalry. We don’t need to have a cow because people are sitting in groups of eight instead of five, or because they are 1.72 metres apart instead of two metres’ distance.
If we want people to follow the rules, the rules have to be clear and easier to obey than disobey.
Trinity Bellwoods Park is an obvious gathering spot. How did the city prepare for a sunny postpandemic weekend? Was entrance to the park controlled? Were circles painted on the grass to reinforce physical-distancing rules?
People flocking to parks is actually a good thing. The last thing we want to do is chase groups underground.
We aren’t going to find our way out of this pandemic with the measuring-tape police, with heavy-handed policing or a mob mentality.
Rage at perceived scofflaws is not useful either.
Casual outdoor transmission of the coronavirus is possible, but it’s the least of our worries.
If people have energy to spare to be angry – and apparently many do – they should aim their daggers at the continued inability of the province to meet its COVID-19 testing targets, its bungling of contact tracing and the total absence of data on where transmission is occurring.
These failures are fuelling the continuing outbreak in the province – 458 new cases Sunday – more than park visits ever will.
So, politicians and public-health officials, ensconced in their glass houses, should be careful about throwing stones at sun worshippers and Frisbee players.
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