Toronto Mayor John Tory said Sunday that he hopes allotment gardens and community gardens within the city can open as early as Friday.
The mayor said his staff is working to develop rules and safety guidelines to make it happen on May 1, which marks the traditional opening of the popular gardens where people farm small plots of land and enjoy the fresh air.
“The reality of our growing season is that if we don’t get them planted [soon], people are going to be unable to harvest,” Mr. Tory said. “We are striving to get it done as soon as possible.”
The mayor said he spoke with Doug Ford before the Ontario Premier announced on Saturday that he would immediately reverse an emergency declaration that closed allotment and community gardens throughout the province. The Premier issued the order on March 31 upon the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer as a measure to help control the spread of COVID-19.
“When we chatted I was sympathetic provided we put in place conditions so that we don’t contribute to a new wave of illness," Mr. Tory said. "That is something all of us want to avoid.”
The decision to open the gardens will now rest with local medical officers. It is a task complicated by the prevalence of COVID-19 in some jurisdictions, such as Toronto, but its relative scarcity in others.
“You can look at what other places are doing and it’s helpful, but the scale of everything we are doing here is much bigger," Mr. Tory said.
Community gardeners and food-security experts had pressed Ontario’s government to rescind the emergency order, which handcuffed municipalities. On Saturday, Ontario agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman told stakeholders in an e-mail that the gardens could open immediately provided people practise physical distancing and don’t gather in groups of more than five at a time.
“Those taking part in community and public-allotment gardens are required to follow the advice of their local medical officer of health and adhere to the requirements that pertain to the use of any facilities,” Mr. Hardeman’s letter stated. “Community and allotment gardens play an important role in supporting people vulnerable to food insecurity amid this outbreak. I look forward to seeing them open as soon as possible.”
Lorraine Johnson, a long-time community-gardening activist in Toronto, was relieved by the announcement.
“I was very happy to hear it,” Ms. Johnson said. “I did expect there was a good chance that things would go in this direction, but it was still a very nice surprise.”
“I felt a good deal of relief because a lot of people depend on access to those community gardens for stress release, ” said Ms. Johnson, the author of the book City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing. “Especially in the middle of a pandemic, people need access to nature. They are craving it.”
Ms. Johnson said gardeners who had established petitions, asking for the plots to be opened, were exuberant.
“There was so much angst around the uncertainty," Ms. Johnson said. "Now the question we have to answer is how to do it safely, and as a community help make sure as many gardens can open and meet the criteria.”
Saturday’s provincial declaration said the gardens will be required to meet and adhere to all local public health and safety measures. Other outdoor recreational amenities under a current emergency order, including playgrounds, sports fields, off-leash dog parks and picnic areas, remain closed
Measures that are being considered to keep the gardens safe include physical distancing and slotted times to limit the number of people on hand at any certain time. The mayor said staff from the city’s parks and recreation department will likely be asked to monitor activity in the gardens. Because of the number of issues at hand, he said he does not foresee a wave of bylaw officers sweeping through community gardens to issue tickets.
“We are hopeful that people will be happy enough that they are open that they will respect the rules,” Mr. Tory said. "Things like community gardens are important to a number of people.”
The mayor lives downtown and does not garden, but has heard from residents who do. He said he had recently been receiving as many as 600 e-mails in a day, and that community gardens have been a prevalent topic of discussion.
“I have been to a lot of them across the city, and know the degree to which people find them important,” he said.
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