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Caution tape surrounds playground equipment at a park on The Esplanade in downtown Toronto on March 26, 2020.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

For one day in mid-April, the province of Ontario turned toddlers into scofflaws. Loitering on the jungle gyms in brazen defiance of public health orders, these pint-sized delinquents openly flouted Schedule 3 of the Reopening Ontario Act, which prohibited the use of outdoor playgrounds, play structures and play equipment. Police didn’t dare intervene, however, since these particular offenders can occasionally get violent – especially when they go without their afternoon naps.

The provincial government was quickly and deservedly shamed out of its 24-hour prohibition on the public use of swing sets, but since then it has refused to budge on its similarly bizarre closures of other recreational activities. Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis courts, skate parks, baseball diamonds and golf courses must remain closed. Camping in provincial parks is not allowed for the duration of the stay-at-home order. Ontario even put in writing a prohibition on using picnic tables (though people are allowed to sit on benches as long as they maintain physical distancing).

For this retrograde, ridiculous, desperate attempt at pandemic control, Ontario should be the laughing stock of the world. Various jurisdictions shut down playgrounds and other outdoor recreational sites more than a year ago, when we knew next to nothing about the spread of COVID-19. Since then, evidence has shown that the risk of fomite transmission – meaning transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through surfaces such as park benches and monkey bars – is relatively low, and that the risk of outdoor transmission is hugely reduced compared with indoors.

That’s why other governments – including the provincial government in Nova Scotia, which recently announced a two-week lockdown this week amid rising case counts – have continued to permit outdoor recreational activities while clamping down on indoor gatherings. It’s a harm-reduction measure that recognizes that not everyone has access to a backyard (particularly in urban centres), and also that people need outlets for fun and recreation after a year of yo-yo lockdowns. If outdoor activities are prohibited, people will simply move indoors. A government not in the throes of political panic would recognize that.

Shortly after Premier Doug Ford closed pickleball courts but left factories experiencing outbreaks virtually untouched, the province’s science advisory table released a document spelling out “What will work” and “What won’t work” in terms of controlling the pandemic. It was a plain language document that was one step short of using crude crayon drawings to get through to the Premier about why closing basketball courts could actually make things worse. “Policies that discourage safe outdoor activity will not control COVID-19,” it read. But it didn’t work, and the province has not relented from its unscientific insistence that picnics and golf must be outlawed.

Beyond the unintended consequence of driving social activities indoors, the added shame of Ontario’s crusade against fresh air is that it is missing an opportunity for true innovation – one where the province could have embraced a temporary outdoor economy where all sorts of activities are moved outside. Indeed, with provincial and municipal sign-on, some infrastructure adjustments and a little creativity, the province could have permitted personal training in parks, parking-lot haircuts, patio manicures and sidewalk sales. Classrooms could have been moved to fields, and bars and restaurants switched entirely to outdoor service. Instead, businesses have simply been ordered to shut down or operate under severe restrictions, leaving people to source their haircuts in secret and business owners who want to work to rely on government support.

The Ontario government isn’t alone in haphazardly clamping down on outdoor activities. This week, a Toronto committee rejected a proposed pilot project to allow the consumption of alcohol in parks – which North Vancouver and Port Coquitlam piloted successfully last year – since adults apparently cannot be trusted to consume alcohol without the supervision of a 20-year-old waiter. The City of Toronto also erected fences around cherry blossoms in several parks to discourage crowds, offering a live-stream of the trees instead – just as it did last year, before there was data showing that big outdoor gatherings, such as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer, did not materially contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

A year ago, governments could be forgiven for putting caution tape around playgrounds and locking up public tennis courts. The virus was new, authorities were panicking and the consensus was that it was better to be overzealous and scale back later than too lenient and suffer the public health consequences. But it is not March 2020 any more. Ontario’s government has no justification for clamping down on outdoor activities in April 2021, just as it had no justification for turning toddlers into scofflaws. Perhaps if someone draws it out in crayon, the Premier will finally get the message.

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