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Vancouver council moves step closer to allowing legal public drinking this summer

Trial could coincide with park board’s plan to allow drinking at select beaches and parks
Vancouver council moved a step closer Tuesday to allowing legal public drinking in select public spaces this summer.

Vancouver residents and visitors could soon be allowed to legally drink alcohol in select public spaces after city council reconsidered a motion Tuesday that it defeated earlier this month to direct staff to launch a trial this summer.

City staff now has to prepare a bylaw, which council would have to vote on, and decide which public spaces are suitable for legal drinking. That could include a yet-to-be decided piazza, or plaza, as pushed for by Coun. Melissa De Genova to mark Italian Heritage Month this month.

But staff must first consult with the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health, city departments such as engineering and business improvement associations on locations and hours.

The move by council runs parallel to efforts by park board commissioners to have a legal drinking trial launched this summer at select beaches and parks. The delay is related to park board staff sorting out a jurisdictional issue with the provincial government.

The motivation for councillors and park board commissioners to allow legal drinking this summer is largely related to the pandemic and the inability for many people without access to private green space to enjoy an alcoholic drink in public without fear of arrest.

The push to do this has also focused on the fear that non-Caucasian people have of being targeted for illegally drinking in a public space, a concern raised by Will Shelling in his comments to council June 2.

“As a black man myself, I have accepted and faced a hard reality that I will face extra scrutiny when it comes to conduct in society,” said Shelling, a member of the equity and inclusion office at the University of British Columbia. “I’ve witnessed many of my peers imbibe responsibly but illegally on Vancouver’s beaches, but I’ve chosen not to because of the difficult reality of disproportionate rates of ticketing against black, Indigenous and other persons of colour.”

The vote Tuesday was not unanimous but saw councillors Lisa Dominato, Jean Swanson and De Genova change their votes from the June 2 decision that ended in a 5-5 tie and killed Coun. Pete Fry’s motion.

Dominato was the councillor who brought forward the reconsideration motion. She told council Tuesday that since her vote June 2 that she has heard more support from the public for a legal drinking trial in select public spaces.

“It’s really centred around people saying, ‘Listen, let’s treat adults like adults,’” Dominato said. “We’ve been managing through the pandemic, we’ve managed to flatten the curve. Dr. Henry said let’s be outdoors — that’s the best place to be. But I’ve also heard from small businesses and how this will actually benefit them in terms of the off-sales that they’re undertaking to supplement what’s happening with temporary patios.”

Swanson said she still believes there are “significant health issues” with allowing more access to alcohol. But in changing her vote, Swanson pointed to her concerns about people being “discriminated against in the enforcement process” related to current illegal consumption of alcohol in public spaces.

“And in an ideal world, I think we should end that discrimination rather than broadening access to everyone to eliminate the discrimination,” she said.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who was on a scheduled personal leave from the June 2 meeting, supported Dominato’s reconsideration motion Tuesday while councillors Colleen Hardwick and Sarah Kirby-Yung stuck to their votes against the proposal.

Hardwick reiterated concerns raised by Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, who spoke to council in May. Daly warned council about the dangers of allowing more alcohol access in a province with the highest consumption rates in the country and home to a significant binge-drinking culture.

Hardwick pointed out council also heard from Daly earlier Tuesday about the dual public health emergencies of the pandemic and overdose death crisis and that “everybody listened to her very carefully and took everything she said really seriously.”

“Why are we not taking her seriously now?” Hardwick said. “She emphasized now is not the time to deal with this.”

Kirby-Yung attempted unsuccessfully to have staff consider developing a strategy on legal public consumption of alcohol for a trial in the summer of 2021. Kirby-Yung is on record of supporting a trial at beaches and parks this year.

“I’m not suggesting that a lot of people cannot be responsible in the summer, I’m not suggesting a lot of people want to do this, but I think that this council has supported a way forward through the parks and beaches,” she said. “I’d like to be informed by that, I’d like to learn from that, I’d like to hear how it goes.”

Kirby-Yung and Hardwick both abstained from voting in the two votes related to moving ahead with a trial in public spaces this summer. Following the votes, De Genova later withdrew a similar motion to allow legal drinking in public.