Is Vaughan skating on thin ice? Why decision to close outdoor rinks, toboggan hill amid COVID concerns is a misstep on a slippery slope

·4 min read

The City of Vaughan’s lone decision to close its outdoor amenities amid Ontario’s stay-at-home order has sparked a debate on whether some restrictions to curb the spread can do more harm than good.

Vaughan announced last Friday it would close its outdoor skating rinks, a toboggan hill and a dog park effective immediately. The decision, the city said, is in response to rising cases of COVID-19 and follows the province’s stay-at-home order, which came into effect late last week.

The closure has left experts perplexed and residents upset — one of whom taped a video that has since circulated across social media of a city employee salting a skating rink to prevent people from using it. Many have argued the move is a misguided public health measure that could have adverse effects on the mental and physical health of residents.

Vaughan remains the only city in the Greater Toronto Area to have taken this measure. Toronto’s public skating rinks remain open to allow residents to exercise.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown tweeted on Monday his city will not be closing its outdoor amenities, “regardless of what some municipalities have been doing on their own accord.”

“Outdoor activities are low risk, good for physical fitness and much needed for mental health during the current lockdown,” Brown said in a series of tweets, adding Brampton will move to add four new artificial rinks in addition to existing ones.

In its release, the City of Vaughan said decisions to close or open amenities are “informed by Vaughan-specific data and reflect guidance issued by York Region Public Health.” York Region has 1,833 active cases as of Wednesday, accounting for 5.7 per cent of current cases in the province.

Meanwhile, Toronto, where rinks remain open, is home to 26 per cent of Ontario’s cases.

The differing policies on outdoor amenities by GTA cities may also be tied to messaging by the Government of Ontario, which has been criticized by some as confusing.

In response to a request for clarification, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said “outdoor ice rinks, tobogganing hills and parks and recreational areas are permitted to open” during Ontario’s stay-at-home order, but municipalities can have additional targeted restrictions in their region if they choose to.

A spokesperson for the City of Vaughan said in a statement that the city was “the first municipality in York Region to declare a state of emergency” in response to COVID-19, and closing its rinks is yet another example of the city’s “disciplined, responsible and measured approach.”

The decision to close outdoor recreational amenities has already been challenged by Vaughan councillor Alan Shefman, who put forward a motion asking the city to reopen outdoor rinks with additional safety measures. Council will vote on the motion on Jan. 26.

But for now, rinks in Vaughan will remain closed — a decision that Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, believes is misguided.

“Any steps and policies that promote safe outdoor activity is clearly the right path forward,” said Bogoch, who also serves as a member of Ontario’s vaccine task force.

Bogoch said he agrees more with Brampton’s decision to keep rinks open and build on existing outdoor amenities as they pose a minimal risk for COVID-19 spread.

“We know that outdoor venues are much, much safer compared to indoor venues,” Bogoch added. “Of course, nothing in the COVID era is going to be a hundred per cent safe, but we know outdoor venues are way lower risk.”

Bogoch said it’s important to keep outdoor amenities open, including outdoor skating rinks and hiking trails, so that residents have a chance to catch fresh air and get exercise in the midst of a dreary, dark second wave of infections. He added those activities can be done safely if people wore a mask and if population control was regulated on amenities to avoid overcrowding.

“With us being neck deep in the second wave, we should be promoting healthy and safe activities and behaviours that promote both physical and mental health,” Bogoch said.

Mental health is a big factor to why outdoor amenities should stay open, said Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto.

“They provide a real good mental health gain at a small physical health cost,” Joordens said.

People, he added, have an innate nature of being social, and promoting activities that can allow this with minimal risk will prevent them from breaking the rules and engaging in riskier behaviour and gathering indoors.

“The limbic system will always take over the frontal lobe, it’s much older and more powerful,” Joordens said, explaining how emotional needs can often trump practical needs in the human brain.

“If we close down all the public areas for people to be interacting, then we’re going to drive them into the private areas where they’re probably still going to do it … and that’s more dangerous,” Joordens said.

Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star