Vancouver council says no to legal drinking in public spaces

Chief medical health officer warns of ‘significant binge-drinking culture’ in B.C.

A Vancouver city councillor’s push to allow people to legally drink alcohol in select public spaces got shot down Tuesday after councillors opposed to the idea cited concerns about increasing alcoholism among British Columbians.

Though the council vote ended in a 5-5 tie, Coun. Pete Fry required a majority to advance his motion to staff for study and eventual implementation. Mayor Kennedy Stewart was absent for the vote, taking a scheduled personal leave prior to the meeting.

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“This is really about creating opportunities for just regular Vancouverites who would like to enjoy a social drink in some capacity,” Fry told council before his motion was defeated by four NPA councillors and COPE Coun. Jean Swanson.

Fry was supported by Green party colleagues Adriane Carr and Michael Wiebe, along with independent Coun. Rebecca Bligh and OneCity’s Christine Boyle.

Fry, who lives in a house in Strathcona, argued many people don’t have yards where they can legally and safely drink alcohol outside.

“I have a yard, I have the opportunity to physically distance and socially connect and have a drink and not worry about crossing paths with the law,” he said, which was a sentiment shared by Wiebe, who said the need to connect outside is even greater under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fry’s motion wasn’t prescriptive about which public spaces should open up to allow for legal consumption of alcohol, but he noted his idea was supported by business improvement associations and many residents.

It would have been up to city staff to determine which public spaces would best suit the legal consumption of alcohol, with an unidentified piazza, or public square, to celebrate Italian Heritage Month this month at the top of the list.

Fry and Wiebe argued illegal public drinking already exists across the city.

But it was Dr. Patricia Daly’s presentation to council May 27 that Swanson and NPA councillors Colleen Hardwick, Sarah Kirby-Yung, Melissa De Genova and Lisa Dominato referred to in explaining their reasons for not supporting Fry’s motion.

Daly told council the pandemic has had a great effect on the mental health of Canadians and that evidence showed 25 per cent of Canadians were drinking more alcohol. Which, she said, was concerning in B.C., the province with the highest per capita alcohol consumption rate in Canada and home to a “significant binge-drinking culture.”

“Public health leaders in B.C. have identified this increase in alcohol consumption as one of the most serious negative unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic response,” Daly said.

“Also, alcohol has recently passed tobacco and other drug overdoses as the most common cause of preventable hospitalizations in the province. In fact, B.C. ranks number one among Canadian provinces in its rate of hospitalizations for alcohol misuse — nearly 50 per cent higher than the Canadian rate.”

Daly cited Fry’s motion and others related to allowing temporary liquor licences for non-licensed cafes and restaurants, along with supporting the park board’s desire to run a pilot project that allows people to drink at select beaches and parks, in her concern about impacts to the health care system.

“The last thing we want to do as we begin the delicate balance of recovery within our hospitals — and while we will still be seeing patients with suspected COVID-19 — is to implement municipal policies that are going to increase preventable visits to our emergency department,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, a majority of council voted to urge the park board to launch a pilot project this summer to allow public consumption of alcohol at select beaches and parks. Council has no jurisdiction over such policy.

Even so, Swanson voted against that motion, too.

“I’m sticking with Dr. Daly here,” said Swanson, who shared stories about family members’ problems with alcohol.

“I think we have a situation where we’re not creating a bunch of new jobs for lower wage workers, and we are expanding access to alcohol. As I’ve said before, I think we should be following public health directives and reducing access to alcohol for health reasons.”

Hardwick reminded council that Daly told her at the May 27 meeting that allowing alcohol consumption in public spaces “is a bad idea, and it’s a bad idea now for a raft of reasons that are science based.”

Added Hardwick: “I’m going to echo Coun. Swanson echoing Dr. Daly.”

Kirby-Yung: “What I’m hearing from the public, as I sift back through all the feedback to council, is that it’s really the parks and beaches that are what captures people’s hearts and imaginations, it’s not the downtown spaces.”

Added Kirby-Yung: “I’m not trying to be dramatic, and I’m not against responsible drinking and I support it on the parks and beaches, but just not everywhere. Alcohol is not the answer to the pandemic — it’s just not.”

The park board is scheduled to discuss Monday a pilot project to allow public consumption of alcohol at select beaches and parks. The board passed a motion last year to consider the option, but has yet to implement a plan to proceed.

The City of North Vancouver, which doesn’t have an elected park board, approved Monday to allow consumption of alcohol at some parks and public spaces, including the popular Shipbuilders’ Square on the waterfront.

Note: This story has been updated since first posted. The original draft said the mayor was on an "unexpected" personal leave. He was, in fact, on a "scheduled" personal leave.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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