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Pedestrians practice physical distancing as the city widens sidewalks by closing a lane to cars, on April 17, 2020 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

“Can I have a beer with my neighbours if we sit apart?”

That’s the kind of question many Canadians have been asking, pleadingly, in this strange new era of physical distancing and self-isolation.

When Brent Moloughney, associate medical officer of health with Ottawa Public Health, said the answer to that question was “No” and told people to not look for “loopholes” in the stay-at-home admonitions, he caused an uproar.

Ottawa Public Health quickly “clarified” that chatting with neighbors at a safe distance was fine.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson also chimed in: “If you and your neighbor are having a beer or a lemonade and you’re at the end of your driveway six feet apart, two metres apart, then enjoy.”

André Picard answered more reader questions during an Instagram Live

Opinion: The coronavirus pandemic will likely change social etiquette for good

Enjoy is not a word that rolls easily off the tongue in pandemic times, but most Canadians seem to be managing by revelling in small pleasures such as the two-metre toast and the walk in the park. Not sitting in the park, or playing in the park, mind you, because those activities can net you a whopping fine. Or running or cycling, which may earn you eternal damnation from passersby.

The past few weeks have seen the imposition of sweeping restrictions on our liberty, new social norms and even the creation of snitch lines that once existed in the most repressive regimes. People have given up much of the freedom we see as sacrosanct in a liberal democracy with little complaint. Lives are at stake, after all. We all have to do our part to “plank the curve.”

But if we want the rules to be respected, rules have to make sense.

When people flagrantly defy clear rules and endanger public health, bring down the hammer. Mass gatherings and parties are verboten. Nobody is going to have much sympathy for the college kids who had a raucous party that resulted in each of them getting $1,546 fines.

But what purpose does it serve to slap a homeless person “lingering” on a park bench with a $700 fine? Or giving a beleaguered parent with two toddlers an $880 fine for straying off a path onto the grass in a city park? People have been fined for walking their dogs alone. For stopping and chatting because they were not the requisite two metres apart. For opening stores that were not deemed “essential services” when that designation is quite arbitrary.

The vast majority of people are doing their best to navigate the new norms, and doing so in good faith. If they slip up a bit, we need to cut them some slack.

Heavy-handed law enforcement is the antithesis of public health.

Everything we do should be designed to reduce harm, not exacerbate it. Efforts have to be focused on public information and education, not enforcement. Instead of ticketing homeless people, we should be providing them with shelter and sustenance. Polite warnings to out-of-work parents who steal a few moments away in the park will create much more compliance than adding to their financial burden with fines. If we want people to respect physical distancing, then we should be closing roads to cars and reserving them for pedestrians.

The philosophy we need to be embracing is providing space instead of policing inadequate space.

Trust and goodwill are going to become increasingly important as pandemic endures. Respecting the rules is relatively easy for a few weeks, but what happens when restrictions stay in place for months? Then we will look for loopholes. And grumble – though hopefully not to the point of absurd mass protests to protest physical distancing, as we are seeing in the United States.

Sure, people are frustrated. Everyone wants to know when this is going to end. The only realistic answer to that question is: Not very soon. But if we see a sustained reduction in cases, it will open the door to a gradual loosening of restrictions. The key word being gradual. The new public health rules were imposed swiftly. They will removed slowly. Forget returning to normal. We need to envisage a new normal.

As Ontario Premier Doug Ford said, people are already feeling “squirrelly and stuffy.”

As spring settles in, that beer in the backyard with the neighbor is going to become all the more alluring – essential even. Let’s not assume every driveway chat is a slippery slope to a rager.

We need to not only allow but encourage small pleasures to make our larger sacrifices more bearable.

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