Torontonians can’t wait for the city’s green spaces to reopen. Not so fast, says Mayor John Tory
April 27, 2020
Francine Kopun and David Rider
Cooped up in a townhouse with no backyard for the past few weeks hasn’t been easy for Ken Lister and his family, which includes a six-year-old and a four-year-old with lots of energy to run off each day.
Jonah, the six-year-old, can sit still for crafts, but Sierra’s attention span isn’t as long, and the days when the family used to pile in the car to visit an outdoor playground or a mall, mundane as that may seem, are dearly missed.
“Sierra wanders around the house often, and she’s bored,” said Lister, contemplating another weekend indoors, along with much of the rest of Toronto, while yearning to get out into the April sunshine after a long winter.
The news this week that Toronto may be turning the tide against the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by warnings to remain at home as much as possible, in order to maintain the current advantage and avoid another wave of illness.
Mayor John Tory said he is being lobbied by special interest groups to reopen certain businesses and facilities, but that his decisions will be driven by science, not pleas or petitions.
In an interview with the Star on Thursday, he said he feels Toronto’s growing frustration with restrictions, including closed parks, but said he can’t at this time commit to a schedule for reopening them, only that when it does happen, it will happen gradually.
“Everything we do, whether it’s cemeteries, parks, golf courses -- has to be done subject to a clear understanding that it’s not back to the good old days,” Tory said.
“There will be different rules that will apply, probably for some time to come, and that will change the nature of how we use all these places.”
It’s a tough situation for residents, especially when research has shown that exposure to green space has clear health benefits, according to Ronald Macfarlane, retired manager, Toronto Public Health and currently an associate at the non-profit organization Creating Healthy and Sustainable Environments.
In fact, research has shown that even looking at greenery can improve health -- for example, patients recovering from surgery have been shown to heal better if they have a window that looks out onto nature.
Green spaces also encourage the kind of activity that increases longevity and decreases the incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease and has been found to improve mental health, said Macfarlane.
Exercising outdoors brings extra benefits, says Catherine Saniston, Canada Research Chair in physical activity and mental health.
“Being able to work out outside means every day your exercise changes -- the terrain, the weather, everything around you is different all the time, and that variety helps your mental health.”
She predicts Torontonians will struggle with advice to continue physical distancing because being outside is for many, inherently social.
This week the province extended emergency measures that will keep non-essential businesses and parks closed until May 6.
Residents are allowed to walk through parks, as long as they walk only with people they live with and do not come within six feet of anyone else, or risk a set fine of $750, or $1,000, depending on the offence.
Dogs must be leashed at all times.
There have been no orders to close cemeteries but some, including Mount Pleasant Cemetery Group, with 10 GTA sites covering 1,200 acres, have padlocked their gates.
Mount Pleasant spokesperson Rick Cowan said signs urging people to observe physical distancing weren’t working, and gates were locked to protect the health of visitors and staff.
He said Mount Pleasant will take its cues from public health when it comes to reopening.
That has raised the ire of Margot Boyd, one of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery’s neighbours in a court fight over public participation in the cemetery group’s operations.
“The capricious closing of the gates to the cemeteries is a regressive policy that disproportionately affects the poor,” as there is little access to nature in midtown, said Boyd.
Golf courses remain closed, but they have been allowed to do the work needed to prepare the greens for summer.
“Normally this is kick-off season,” said Terry Kim, director of golf at Angus Glen Golf Club.
What makes it worse is that while the last three springs have been wet and unpleasant, the spring of 2020 has been sunny and relatively dry, Kim said.
All events at the golf course have been cancelled through the middle of July and the club is working on plans for gradually reopening to guests when it is permitted to do so, hopefully in a month or so, with social distancing measures in place.
The plan is to create social distancing by parking the golf carts in the parking lot so members can get directly into them and drive separately through the course, automatically maintaining an acceptable distance from one another.
Rakes, which are used by multiple players over the course of a day in bunkers, will be removed. The number of people using the pro shop will be tightly controlled and green fee transactions will be done outdoors, using iPads, so members don’t have to enter the club at all if they don’t have to.
Even with city parks mostly empty, city workers are being kept busy, securing and re-securing closed park amenities and removing litter from parks, according to a city spokesperson.
They are getting rid of winter plants and doing basic horticulture maintenance. Grass cutting will start soon, and sports fields will be irrigated when the weather warms up.
Forestry crews are pruning hazardous trees.
Staff will use the closure of High Park during cherry blossom season to conduct maintenance and repairs.
The plan is to have all in shape by the time the Lister family and everyone else in Toronto is free to get back into parks and other green spaces.
“We are looking forward to getting back to the park places where we come together to create community,” said Janie Romoff, general manager, Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation.
Until then, Lister, a former TDSB trustee, and his wife will focus on keeping their kids entertained indoors and take advantage of some of the hiking trails that are still open.
“We’re still focused on keeping them happy every day,” said Lister.
What’s open and closed
All playgrounds, off-leash dog parks, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, skateboard and BMX parks, picnic areas, outdoor exercise equipment and other parks amenities, as well as parking lots attached to the city’s park system, are closed.
All provincially operated parks and recreational equipment in parks and facilities are also closed.
High Park will be closed entirely while cherry trees blossom, which is expected to begin in late April or early May. The city will notify residents of the closure dates.
City golf courses are closed.
Hydro corridors are open for individual recreation, including walking, jogging, cycling on paths alone or with someone you live with.
The city of Toronto closed parking lots attached to its parks system on March 25.
Limited use of parks is permitted:
Walking, running or cycling through parks is allowed, as long as you keep moving through the park, park trails and boardwalks. Stopping momentarily is permitted, but the city says a park or trail or boardwalk should not be a destination for stopping.
Picnics are not permitted. “At this time, parks and green spaces are not meant to be a destination like they used to be,” according to the city.
If members of the same household want to get out and throw a ball or a frisbee around, that is permitted, however, residents are encouraged not to use parks, as much as possible.