How can Toronto get people outdoors this winter? Start shovelling, says this pandemic walking group

·6 min read

When her local YMCA shut down in March during Ontario's first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gillian Mason and two of her friends started a new routine that's now going into its ninth month.

At least three times a week, the trio sets off on a brisk morning walk of 7.5 kilometres on The Meadoway, a lengthy multi-use trail that runs through the heart of Scarborough along a hydro corridor.

"It's meant that we've been outside, that we've been getting our exercise," said Mason.

"We're able to socialize with actual human beings, not on Zoom … so it's meant a great deal to our mental health as well as our physical health."

But after the first significant snowfall of the season, the group has realized that their new pandemic exercise regimen may no longer be feasible.

The concrete trail is now covered in a thin and slippery layer of ice and crunchy snow. The group says dangerous conditions on the trail will cut off what has been a safe and accessible exercise space for thousands of people who live in the area.

Nick Boisvert/CBC
Nick Boisvert/CBC

Toronto does not perform regular snow removal on the trail, but a city spokesperson said it is "reviewing the feasibility of providing winter snow clearing service along The Meadoway," with more information to be available in the coming weeks.

Gyms, fitness centres to be closed for at least 28 days

Gripes about a lack of snow clearing and winter maintenance are a common feature of Toronto winters, but those concerns appear to be more urgent this year. The city is now in the midst of a provincially ordered lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 that will last until at least Dec. 21.

Toronto's indoor fitness centres have been ordered closed and residents are increasingly calling on the city to do more to promote and facilitate outdoor exercise and recreation during what could be a long and difficult winter of restrictions.

Exercise is considered to be an essential activity even under the current protocols, though people have been advised to gather only with members of their own household.

"With gyms closing — and who knows when they'll open up — we want our outdoor spaces to be more accessible," said Emily Eng, who was taking part in an outdoor tai chi class at Christie Pits Park on a chilly Monday morning.

Nick Boisvert/CBC
Nick Boisvert/CBC

David Ballantyne, the group's instructor, said the city could also put up temporary open-air structures in parks to keep people out of the snow and rain, if not the cold temperatures.

"We're doing tai chi and martial arts, but there could be yoga classes or even outdoor ballroom dancing," he said.

City unveils new winter recreation plan

There have been previous calls for the city to develop a winter version of its ActiveTO program, which operated during the spring and summer to promote cycling, walking and running on city streets.

Mayor John Tory, for his part, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Nov. 20: "We need to turn ourselves into more of a winter city."

Coun. Mike Layton, who represents Ward 11, University-Rosedale, has been among the most vocal proponents of winter recreation at city hall.

He has called for increased snow clearance on park trails and bike lanes this winter and also led a push that will now see 28 public washrooms kept open that would have ordinarily been closed for the season.

Layton told CBC Toronto that more work will be required to help people exercise safely on city land.

"With winter coming just weeks away, we're not going to be able to do everything," he said. "Our facilities aren't equipped to accommodate the physical distancing that is required, so we're going to have to address that."

Toronto city council will also vote on a set of recommendations this week that could result in more snow clearing on bike lanes and park pathways.

Current city protocols call for snow clearing only on park pathways that connect to TTC routes, schools, arenas and community centres after a snowfall of eight centimetres or more.

Residents encouraged to 'get outside and stay active'

On Wednesday, Tory launched the city's Welcome T.O. Winter parks plan.

It includes new and enhanced recreation activities in parks across Toronto so people can get out and exercise. The locations include 54 artificial ice rinks and five golf courses.

"Throughout the pandemic, the City has remained committed to providing people with safe opportunities for recreation. To help people stay active this winter season, the City is highlighting its offering of new and enhanced exercise-based recreation activities in parks locations across Toronto," the city said in a news release on Wednesday.

  • Free leisure skating at the city's 54 outdoor ice rinks, including Nathan Philips Square, beginning Nov. 28, weather dependent, with a maximum of 25 participants per rink for physical distancing.

  • 23 toboggan hills in neighbourhoods across Toronto.

  • Eight snow loops for walking and snowshoeing at the city's five golf courses, with loops ranging from one kilometre to 2.5 kilometres.

  • Six disc-golf locations, including the newest at Scarlett Woods Golf Course, beginning Nov. 28.

  • New guided outdoor Walk Fit programs, including 45 sessions each week.

  • High Park car-free weekends.

  • City parks with additional 60 kilometres of paved recreational trails and pathways with snow maintenance.

  • 100 parks with winter maintenance, including 60 with enhanced maintenance this year including cleared parking lots and paved pathways.

  • 30-plus natural ice rinks — the city is accepting applications until Dec. 31 for community-built and maintained natural ice rinks in City parks.

Throughout the winter, the following parks amenities will remain open:

  • More than 800 playgrounds and 30 parks with outdoor fitness equipment.

  • Outdoor sport courts, including 57 tennis courts with nets in place for winter tennis.

  • 70 outdoor table tennis and 60 chess tables.

  • 68 dog off-leash areas.

  • The city will more than double its supply of winter park washrooms from 64 to 143 as part of its ongoing response to COVID-19.

  • The archery range in E.T. Seton Park.

At its outdoor rinks, the city recommends that residents wear masks on and off the ice and they must wear masks while waiting in line. Leisure skating session will be limited to 45 minutes. Indoor washrooms will be available but change rooms will be closed.

The city urges residents to make reservations for leisure skating at its outdoor rinks and for outdoor Walk Fit. There will be spots available for people who cannot make a reservation online.

Reservations can be made online here. Residents are required to register with eFun and obtain a client and family PIN by calling (416) 396-7378.