Covid-19, Ontario, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Close big-box stores

The frustration of businesses that had to close in-store shopping when Toronto went into the “Grey-lockdown zone”, while their competitor big box stores remained open, is completely understandable. Premier Ford rationalized that it would be difficult for these big stores to close their toy departments and only sell groceries. While I completely disagree with the Premier (room dividers were invented centuries ago) and agree with businesses that were forced to close that there is an unfairness to these measures, the key problem is that we still haven’t flattened the curve.

Let’s face reality, at the beginning of the pandemic we had a contact tracing system in Ontario that relied on fax machines and manual entry. The new system is better, but we are way behind Korea and Taiwan who have taken contact tracing to a state of the art. This means until a significant amount of our population has been vaccinated our best remedy is asking businesses to close their doors to save lives and protect public health.

Recently, Canadian Appliance Source (CAS) wanted to remain open to customers shopping at their stores, but lost a decision, in part because the judge correctly noted that they are not a hardware store and therefore not exempt from the lockdown. Below is an insightful statement from this case:

Cdn Appliance made forceful arguments that as an appliance supplier, it is an essential service business; visualize: who’s to say that during a pandemic that a washing machine that cleans clothes or a refrigerator that preserves food is less essential than a hammer? https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2020/2020onsc7665/2020onsc7665.html

Last spring, during the height of the first wave our washer-dryer unit broke down and the repair person said it was cheaper to buy a new one. I called CAS and fortunately was able to order a new unit and have it installed in just a couple of days. CAS is right in saying that an appliance is no less essential than hardware. Having a working washer-dryer unit means we can stay home, not go out to the laundromat, and thus avoid potential exposure to the virus. It is not ideal to buy online or over the phone. Certainly, I would have liked to have seen the unit in person first, but these certainly aren’t ideal times. The court case exposed the contradictions in the recent “lockdown”. However, since hammers and washing machines can both be bought over the phone or online, shouldn’t hardware stores close their doors too?

This second wave is worse than the first one. So we have to ask ourselves if a business can sell their products and services over the phone or online then maybe that business must be closed to in-store shopping during this second surge. The big-box stores have the IT infrastructure to sell by phone and online. They also have the means to afford a temporary closure of their stores. Big box stores must close their doors too.

If a refrigerator that preserves food is just as essential as duct tape, why are hardware stores open and appliance stores closed?
Affordable Housing, Covid-19, Parkdale - High Park, Toronto

Ban foreign real estate investment and short-term rentals

Parkdale-High Park

First, let me begin by saying I agree with councillor Joe Cressy’s recent statement, “Housing should be used for just that: housing.” Therefore it follows that housing should not be only used for hoteling nor should it be solely used for investment. Clearly, the core issue is that housing for several years has become unaffordable for a multitude of Toronto residents. The causes of this phenomenon are complicated, but foreign investment, low interest rates, and short-term rentals are key factors. Consequently, I doubt that Toronto’s well-intentioned new vacant home tax will do much to address the problem of affordability. For more information please read: https://www.680news.com/2020/12/16/toronto-vacant-home-tax-vote-in-favour-city-council/

Canadian real estate law has so many loopholes that for all practical purposes foreign investment in real estate is allowed. Note that many countries do not allow foreign ownership of real estate properties, such as New Zealand. Other countries allow foreign ownership of condominium units, but not land, such as the Phillippines. Not surprisingly, in the Phillippines often it is more affordable for locals to buy land as opposed to a small condo, since in the condo market locals have to compete with foreign buyers. The problem that foreign investment in real estate creates is that it often leaves locals out of their own market. For more information please read: https://financialpost.com/personal-finance/mortgages-real-estate/foreigners-are-banned-from-buying-property-in-new-zealand-canada-should-do-the-same

However, banning foreign investment into real estate might not be enough. For instance, despite banning foreign ownership in real estate, New Zealand still has a housing affordability problem in part due to low-interest rates. Toronto is in a similar boat, because as long as we have low-interest rates it will be more attractive for investors to invest in housing as opposed to other markets. And it is far from certain that a vacant home tax will help when investors can borrow a million dollars for less than 2.5% interest in a market that substantially increases in value year after year. They will make more money flipping homes than renting them. While raising interest rates might discourage house flipping and increase the number of rental units, it likely would adversely affect homeowners already struggling to pay their mortgages. For more information please read: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-02/kiwi-housing-frenzy-exposes-perils-of-ultra-low-interest-rates

Short-term rentals such as Airbnb raise rental prices. Ontario’s temporary ban on short-term rentals during the pandemic resulted in record drops in rental prices. While it is a seemingly reasonable argument that we should be able to rent out our homes even for a short-term there is a stronger argument that we cannot run a hotelling business unless we are in fact a hotel. And the common good, in this case, lower rental prices takes precedence over hotelling businesses. For more information please read: https://www.blogto.com/city/2020/12/toronto-enforcing-new-rules-airbnbs/

Toronto has a housing crisis. There are people living in parks, streets, and tents. We have both the moral authority and an ethical responsibilty to take action. Collaboration from all levels of government is needed to tackle this complicated problem. There isn’t a magic bullet solution to this crisis. However, a good start would be a ban on short-term rentals, and an end to foreign investment into real estate. A permanent ban on short-term rentals can be done literally tomorrow. While all the loopholes that still allow foreign investment in Canadian real estate must be closed.

Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Tolerate anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers?

Taxicab in Makati


Sometimes it seems like we all have that neighbour that despite all evidence showing face masks reduce contagion refuses to wear a mask in indoor public spaces citing individual rights, but conveniently ignoring everyone else’s right to live in a secure and safe community. 

Canadian case law is clear: governments are allowed to place reasonable limits on individual rights to protect public health. Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that current restrictions, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks are only temporary measures in consequence of a pandemic. Thus the argument that governments in Canada are trampling over individual rights is a weak one.

This argument becomes even weaker when we compare ourselves to other countries, which require both face masks and face shields to be worn as double protection in public places. In the Philippines, for example, if you don’t wear a face mask together with a face shield you will not get a taxi, it’s that simple. Temperature checks are mandatory before entering a restaurant or shopping mall in its capital Manila. Furthermore, all international travellers must undergo a Covid test at the airport upon arrival to the Philippines. While travellers to Taiwan are required to take a test before departure. By comparison to these two countries, Canadian health measures are both lenient and very reasonable.

Yet some anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are over-dramatically insisting that public health measures in Canada are authoritarian. As someone who grew up in the Dominican Republic during Balaguer’s civilian-authoritarianism before moving to Toronto, I sincerely doubt they understand what authoritarian measures look like. Seriously, who has been locked up in Canada for not wearing a face mask? Someone did get arrested for obstruction of justice only after receiving repeated warnings and blatantly ignoring public health measures while risking the safety of his customers and employees. The fact that this person didn’t even have a business licence before the pandemic began demonstrates that he is unwilling to follow even the most minimum requirements on a good day. Fortunately, he doesn’t represent the vast majority of small business owners who care about the well being of their clients and workers.

The irony is that both the anti-mask and anti-vaxx movements claim the mantle of freedom, yet by practicing disinformation and engaging in hateful conspiracy theories they have proven to be very intolerant. Caving to their demands will only prolong this pandemic and harm the common good. Thus we should heed Karl Popper’s advice on the limits of a tolerant society and under these special circumstances claim the right to not tolerate these two groups, when they break the law in a manner that compromises public safety. Furthermore, while we respect everyone’s freedom of expression rights; nonetheless, reasonable temporary face mask requirements, which are supported by scientific research, should not be a time-consuming debate in the middle of a pandemic that has cost lives.

On the other hand, we should have a healthy debate on how far do we as a society want to go with requiring proof of immunization, now that vaccines will be available soon. Certainly, mandatory vaccinations are out of the question in Canada thanks to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But just like I have to wear prescription eyeglasses to drive a car, shortly I may have to show proof that I have received a vaccine before being allowed to buy tickets to the next Rodriguez concert. In general terms, we have a right to a safe workplace and Covid is a hazard. So, how far should we go with requiring proof of vaccination to ensure workplace safety? Certainly, there might be workers who are unable to receive a vaccine due to valid health reasons e.g. an allergy. But what if a worker refuses vaccination under religious grounds? The answers might be case by case. Regardless, this is an important debate to have right now.

Covid-19, Ontario, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, Reduce HST, Toronto

Reduce HST to help small businesses

We live in a society that did not blink once when it came to bail out banks and automotive companies, even when they dug themselves in a hole. However, when small businesses face economic uncertainty in a pandemic, which was no fault of their own, we are slow to respond with help. Ironic, when we consider that 70% of our workforce is employed by small businesses.

One problem we Canadians often run into is our desire to compare ourselves to the US, which by most accounts is a low bar when it comes to fighting Covid. Likewise, as Ontarians, we often like to compare ourselves to Quebec, another low bar in this struggle. Instead, we should look at the rest of the world, which is turning to VAT (their equivalent to Ontario’s HST) cuts to counter the economic downturn caused by Covid.

There is a strong case that the right amount of HST reductions may help the restaurant and hospitality sectors. Germany provides an exemplary economic plan which includes VAT reductions. Reducing the VAT (our HST) is “a simple and direct way to encourage individuals to start consuming again, quickly” states economist Pascal de Lima. Therefore, Canada and Ontario should follow Germany’s lead and include GST/HST/PST reductions as part of our economic recovery plan.

To end on a positive note, one of the best things about living in Parkdale-High Park is all the wonderful restaurants and local businesses we have in our neighbourhood. For example, I’m lucky to live just steps away from Aztec’s Mine, which makes delicious authentic Mexican cuisine. Like many small businesses they are family-owned and operated. And I am certain they and our local businesses could use your clientele during these trying times.

Aztec’s Mine – authentic Mexican cusine on 1986 Bloor St W, just in front of High Park
Covid-19, Ontario, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Restaurant patio tents must have at least two full sides open

By now you likely know that “the data available so far indicate that indoor transmission of the virus far outstrips outdoor transmission.” Which is a key reason why outdoor dining is safer than indoor dining. As the weather has become colder in Toronto, we have seen patio tents in restaurants become ubiquitous. Which raises the question: at what point does dining in an enclosed tent become as risky as dining indoors?

What does the law say? First, let’s look at the CaféTo guidelines.  Which state:

A tent/structure may be permitted on private property if the following requirements are met:

  • An area that is covered by a roof, canopy, tent, awning or other element, must have at least two full sides open to the outdoors and cannot not be blocked by other walls or physical…

Some might argue that this requirement is just a guideline. However, Ontario Regulation 263/20 RULES FOR AREAS IN STAGE 2 mirrors the above guidelines and states in Schedule 2:

12.  If an outdoor dining area at the establishment is covered by a roof, canopy, tent, awning or other element, at least two full sides of the entire outdoor dining area must be open to the outdoors and must not be substantially blocked by any walls or other impermeable physical barriers.

13.  If an outdoor dining area at the establishment is equipped with a retractable roof and the roof is retracted, at least one full side of the outdoor dining area must be open to the outdoors and must not be substantially blocked by any walls or other impermeable physical barriers.

Based on the above it is a legal requirement for restaurant patio tents to have two full sides open to the outdoors. The purpose of this requirement is to increase outdoor airflow and thus reduce the risk of Covid transmission.

What happens if you see a restaurant that is not in compliance with this requirement e.g. a completely enclosed tent with customers inside? You may want to heed the purpose of this requirement and not dine there due to the risks. If you know the owner, you might want to inform them about these requirements. You also can contact 311 to inform the City of potential noncompliance.

Restaurant workers and owners have been hard hit during this pandemic. I admire their resolve in face of trouble and their use of patio tents to save their jobs and business. As the weather becomes colder there might be a temptation to close the tents i.e. not have at least two full sides open. However, these rules are there to protect us. While there is a case that all levels of government might not be doing enough to help the restaurant industry, that is still no excuse for not complying with regulations that protect safety.

Restaurant patio tents must have at least two full sides open
Covid-19, Mental health, Parkdale - High Park, Public health

Falling in love again

The High Park Tennis Courts located at 11 Colborne Lodge Drive are still open for anyone wanting to enjoy this unseasonably warm November. The best part is that these are public courts, meaning anyone can just show up and play. If the courts are busy you can simply hang your racquet on a board to reserve a court and play at the switch over time which occurs every 30 minutes on the hour or the ½ hour.

Tennis is important to me since I come from a tennis-playing family. My parents’ home in Scarborough has several tennis trophies stored in the basement. Also, I still can vividly remember my childhood spending hours with my brothers watching the Grand Slam tournaments on television and cheering for Borg, Connors, or Vilas. You could say that tennis is my family’s passion, as far as sports are concerned.

I must admit that despite of this passion the past few years I have been playing more recreational soccer to the neglect of my first sports love, tennis. Until Covid hit us and team sports were canceled out of necessity. So, I stored my soccer ball and dusted off my tennis racquet and started to play tennis again with family and friends in High Park.

Years ago back when I was a young and moody teenager a child psychologist recommended that I play more sports to lift myself up. My parents and brothers were already playing tennis, so, it was an easy decision for me to follow their lead and take up tennis. Unlike my brothers, I was never a top A player in high school and often was in the B or C doubles team, but nonetheless, tennis did help transform my outlook on life. Tennis showed me that in difficult times there are still things we can do to raise our spirits.

Today, tennis has once again raised my spirits as it did during those trying adolescent years, by giving me a break from these troubled times. It was inspiring to see Thiem and Osaka win the US Open earlier this year in the middle of a pandemic. Sports teach us that even when there are challenges ahead, we must never give up. Because if your opponent misses a lob or you hit a winning shot, suddenly you could be up 40-love. Speaking of never giving up there is an amazing documentary on Netflix about Guillermo Vilas’ quest to be recognized as the number 1 player back in the mid ’70s which I highly recommend to anyone. Vilas was my childhood idol. His focus, determination, and tireless dedication were impressive.

In difficult times, we are often frustrated because there is so much, we cannot control. So, let’s focus on what we can control and try to enjoy those activities that inspire us and give us hope. For me it’s tennis maybe for you it’s chess or making ceviche. It does not matter. Take care, stay safe, and remember the pandemic will pass.

Canadian Open tennis champion, Guillermo Vilas
by Boris Spremo
(Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

Covid Alert, Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Toronto

Your bubble is bigger than you think

Contract tracing can be effective if you were exposed to Covid-19 at a restaurant or at your workplace, where your phone number was logged so that you could be called in the event of an outbreak.

However, how would you know if the person you sat next to on the bus or the subway for more than 15 minutes later tested positive for Covid? Or what if you spent 25 minutes shopping and were exposed to multiple asymptomatic people without knowing it.

The reality is that often we cross paths with many people in one day, but unfortunately contact tracing is not always a possibility. We might think of our bubbles consisting of our partner, friends, coworkers, and family, but the truth is our bubbles are bigger than what we think.

But what if you and the person you sat next to on the subway both wore masks and had the Covid Alert app installed on your smartphones? The masks would reduce the risk of transmission, and the Covid Alert app would notify you and others who came in close contact with that person of exposure, thus helping prevent further contagion. To help flatten the curve we must make the Covid Alert app as popular as mask-wearing. Download Covid Alert today and help spread the word.

Covid Alert, Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Toronto

Covid Alert prevents further infections

The cancellation of a curling event in Waterloo after a player was notified by the Covid Alert app that they had contact with a person who tested positive for Covid-19 is a win for the hard-working team that developed this app. A win because this cancellation is a case study of exactly how the app should work.

Imagine we did not have the Covid Alert app and the player was infected. The player could transmit the virus to the other players, the players could transmit the virus to patrons and employees at their local pub, the patrons and employees could transmit the virus to their partners who teach at the local school, and the teachers could transmit the virus to students and other teachers. The curling event would be a bubble connected to the pub’s bubble, which in turn is connected to the school’s bubble. And without Covid Alert we could have had yet another dreaded super spreader event. However, what Covid Alert achieved was to separate the curling event, the pub, and the school into separate bubbles.

Hopefully, the player will not test positive. However, close contact presents a risk which the event organizers did not want to take. Kudos to them for showing a level of responsibility commensurate with the potential gravity of the circumstances. Perhaps they adverted several infections in great part thanks to the Covid Alert app. Certainly, the event organizers have set an example in caring for the safety of their community.

The news is bad these days. Ontario is in a second wave, the contact tracing team in Toronto is overwhelmed, but we can still take positive action: please download the Covid Alert app today. It works.

Covid Alert prevents further infections
Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Toronto

Covid hotspots in the GTA

You may have heard in the news that Brampton unfortunately is a Covid hotspot in the General Toronto Area (GTA). Recent numbers show us that Peel Region has reported 1,180 cases since August 1, 2020 compared to the City of Toronto which reported 1,357 cases for the same time frame. The problem is that Toronto (with 2.9 million) has almost twice the population of Peel Region (with 1.5 million) yet the number of cases is comparable.

These numbers tell us that any Provincial plan to tackle this problem must go beyond blaming a few partygoers and bars. There is a strong case for more and wider testing especially in these hotspots to contain outbreaks. Also, I would like to speak to my fellow Toronto residents and say it is time to become less Toronto centric since many people live in Peel yet work in Toronto and vice versa. Therefore, any solution must consider that Peel and Toronto are in this problem together. After all, we have several Covid hotspots in Toronto as well.

We all need to demand our members of provincial Parliament more testing and improved contact tracing now otherwise we will be looking at the very real possibility of a Covid second wave in the GTA.

Covid cases in the GTA since August 1, 2020