Drink up: Ontario relaxes liquor laws

Ontario moves to liberalize its liquor laws this summer by relaxing where, when and how alcohol can be served and consumed.
Following a six-week consultation with industry members, municipalities and police, the Ontario government unveiled new laws on May 27, 2011 that will liberalize the serving and consumption of alcohol. (iStock)

As the warm weather starts to roll in and people begin to enjoy patios and outdoor festivals, Ontarians will be able to imbibe in places they weren't allowed to last summer.

The provincial government unveiled new liquor laws last week — which come into force June 1 — that relax where, when and how alcohol can be served and consumed.

Festivals and events can now designate larger areas beyond the cramped and sometimes smelly beer tents for people to move around with drinks in hand. Special events, including weddings and fundraisers, can also serve alcohol one hour longer — until 2 a.m.

Others changes include:

  • Servers can now carry drinks on sidewalks to reach licensed areas.
  • All-inclusive holiday packages, including alcohol, can be offered.
  • Bars can offer free drinks to customers to celebrate special occasions.

Attorney General Chris Bentley said the new laws were designed to keep up with the times.

"We heard from Ontarians over the last number of years that they're ready for some more freedoms, they want some more choice," he said.

It could also give a bump to the province's $22 billion tourism industry.

'Vast majority' wanted changes

The government undertook a six-week consultation process — which ended on May 1 — speaking to over 40 groups including festival organizers, industry groups, municipalities and police.

"Most people, the vast majority of people, were in favour of modernization," Bentley said.

However, he said many also expressed public safety concerns.

As a result, the government plans to implement tougher enforcement mechanisms, Bentley said, including heftier fines and penalties for licensees that break the rules.

"That's coming soon I hope," he said, adding the matter was before the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates the sale, service and consumption of alcohol.

According to Joe Couto, director of government relations and communications with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, the emphasis on public safety has gone a long way with his organization, which initially opposed the government's proposals.

This includes a requirement that organizers give more advance notice to municipal officials, including law enforcement, before staging public events where alcohol will be served.

"Public safety needs to be the number one issue and we believe that the government is fully on board with that," he said.

Couto said the government changed some of its proposals following consultation with the police, which brought attention to some of the practical realities of liberalizing liquor laws, including how to police new alcohol-friendly zones around beer tents.

"We're certainly pleased that the process has resulted in some positive change going forward," he said, noting that companies need to have security on hand to watch over the enlarged consumption areas.

It is also up to individual municipalities, Bentley noted, to choose where and when they allow these new perks — if at all.

Boon to tourism industry

The new laws could provide new business opportunities to those looking to offer all-inclusive packages, Bentley said. It also a matter of being able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage while perusing stalls at an outdoor festival, he said.

This could be a boon to the tourism industry, which according to the government's press release detailing the new laws is worth $22 billion in Ontario each year.

"We'll have the type of flexibility that many tourists take for granted in other parts of the world," Bentley said.

However, Couto said all-inclusive resorts, which offer free alcohol to patrons, is one concern from a policing perspective, largely because it is easy to consume too much.

"If you're paying for drinks you could say, 'I've only got so much [money].' With an all-inclusive package you tend to be a little more relaxed," he said.

Couto said operators would need to make sure "guests don't avail themselves of those services and then get into a vehicle and drive on our roads."

Moving forward

Although Couto was mostly positive in his assessment of the new laws, he said it was too early to tell exactly how they will affect policing and public safety.

"We'll be taking a good hard look at the new regulations in the coming week," he said, adding that his organization's alcohol and gaming commission will be studying the issue.

It also remains to be seen how these changes will affect costs, both for the police and private organizers who pay for private security and off-duty officers, Couto said.

"We still have concerns in terms of the practical implications because until you actually operationalize changes like this you really don't know. And I know that some of the business community have been expressing concern about the cost implications," he said.

Couto said he didn't think there would be much of a change in terms of public alcohol consumption. 

"This isn't going to be a free-for-all with people drinking [everywhere]," he said.

Moreover, Bentley said the government has no immediate plans to consider any further relaxation of its liquor laws.

"We're digesting this one, beginning on June 1, and we'll take a look at what's utilized and how people react to it," he said.