Canada's Largest Province Grapples with Food Rules During COVID-19

Ontario has added new protections for agricultural workers and relaxed restaurant regulations.


Late Tuesday night, dozens of customers lined up outside a popular bar in Toronto. At midnight, the bar opened its doors, welcoming drinkers into its open-air patio for the first time in months after mandatory closures meant to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given America's close cultural, economic, and geographic links to Canada, and the fact that country has—like nearly every country to date—done a better job containing COVID-19 than has the United States, it's worth taking a look at how Canada is reopening its food economy even as some U.S. states that reopened in part are being forced to pump the brakes due to rising numbers of COVID-19 diagnoses and hospital admissions.

Toronto, Canada's most-populated city, is situated in the province of Ontario. It is Canada's most populous province by a wide margin. Nearly four in ten Canadians reside in Ontario. The province also boasts more residents than its closest challengers—Quebec and British Columbia—combined.

Canada is facing many of the same challenges with its food system that Americans have been dealing with during the pandemic. Just like here in the United States, for example, while many smaller meat producers are thriving, larger meat processors have been hit by COVID-19 outbreaks among employees. Just like here in the United States, that's hurt foreign workers particularly hard, given the fact tens of thousands of guest workers from Latin America and other countries plant, harvest, and process much of the food grown in Canada.

"Without them, Canadian farmers can't feed us," the Toronto Star editorial board wrote earlier this month. "There's nothing more essential than that."

After several Mexican agricultural workers died from COVID-19, in cases linked to outbreaks at more than a dozen Canadian farms—including a particularly severe outbreak in southwestern Ontario—Mexico announced it would halt plans to send vital workers to Canada unless the country agreed to implement steps to reduce the risk of infection among guest workers. After Ontario's Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association recommended this week that all agricultural workers be tested for COVID-19, the province announced it would implement that step and others. Mexico and Canada reopened the worker pipeline this week.

Just as some state and local governments here in the U.S. have done, Ontario lawmakers and regulators have acted to reduce the burden of some food regulations. The province's agriculture minister, Ernie Hardeman, has spoken before about the need to cut red tape in the food sector. To that end, Ontario lifted a ban this spring on retail-to-consumer cannabis deliveries. Last month, Ontario regulators lowered the minimum price bars and restaurants can sell on takeaway liquor from approximately $2.00 CAD per one-ounce serving to $1.34 CAD per serving.

Of course, no government body should mandate prices for buyers and sellers. But this may be what counts as progress in Ontario. After all, as I wrote in a column last year on the glacial pace of alcohol reforms in the province, decades of inadequate half-measures have been offered up as real reforms. As I noted at the time—well before the pandemic arrived in North America—the province had proposed several startlingly modest booze reforms, such as letting convenience stores sell beer and wine, legalizing happy hour advertisements and tailgating, allowing breweries, wineries, and distilleries serve all but mere samples, and letting local governments allow people to consume alcohol in public parks.

Since the pandemic took hold, Ontario has announced a host of additional measures intended to help reopening food businesses. Those steps include allowing proprietors to open new patios and expand existing ones. That process is needlessly complex.

"Normally what you'd have to do is apply up to four times a year and this would go on for 14 days at a time," provincial attorney general Doug Downey said. "[T]here would be increased rules around barriers, that kind of stuff. This simplifies it." Toronto has its own plan in place to facilitate that process, dubbed CaféTO.

But why all that red tape in the first place? Earlier this month, Canada's National Post suggested alcohol Prohibition in the first half of the 1900s is still engrained the nation's psyche.

"Canadian cities [are] still dealing with a prohibition hangover from a century ago," the paper wrote. But the Post also suggested that the pandemic may cause lasting, positive changes in the ways Canada regulates food and drink.

"Decades from now, is it possible we'll look back on COVID-19 as a turning point in Canada's alcohol laws, just as we look at prohibition as a turning point in the other direction?" the Post asked. We can only hope that's the case.