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Last call debate flowing nowhere

Restaurant want later last call but some bar owners opposed

By Andre Mayer

Summer is here and drinkers can enjoy their nightcaps in Toronto clubs an hour later.

Last call has been temporarily extended at a series of special events downtown, and restaurant owners want to make the changes permanent. But some bar owners oppose the plan.

Ontario bars are allowed to serve alcohol until 1 a.m., making it the earliest last call in Canada that stops serving alcohol that early. In Quebec, last call is at 3 a.m., and in British Columbia bars serve alcohol until 2 a.m. South of the border, hours are even later. 

“The extension of drinking hours is a very detailed issue that has been going on for a long time,” says Rachelle Wood, manager of government affairs at the Ontario Restaurant Association (ORA).

“It’s a difficult issue,” says Syd Girling, manager of policy at the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario (LLBO). He says the LLBO has to take into account “occurrences of drinking and driving and neighbourhood disruption” when considering an application for extended hours.

But Wood says until now, the effects of permanently extending hours has been pure speculation.

“No one has done a study on the impact of extended hours,” she says.

The ORA wants the province to extend hours for a six-month period and analyze the effects of the new hours. But Wood says the ORA proposal has been unwelcome in the past.

“The (NDP) government was not supportive of that idea. But we’ll make the same request of the (PC) government,” she says. 

Drinking hours are usually extended for festivals or sporting events, allowing licensed establishments to sell alcohol until 2 a.m. To extend drinking hours, event organizers must apply to the LLBO. The organizers also need a resolution from City Council, who have the final say in the matter.

In the past year, bars have been open late for the Toronto Film Festival, the International Basketball Competition, and major league baseball’s World Series. 

The LLBO estimates it granted extensions to over 200 establishments last year. Organizers of last month’s North by Northeast Music Showcase (NXNE), which featured over 300 bands, received permission for 25 downtown clubs to serve alcohol for an extra hour. Hours have been similarly extended for the du Maurier Jazz Festival.

But some bar owners don’t welcome the later hours.

“I think (last call) is late enough as it is,” says Isla Tulloch, owner of Foster’s Pub. “Independent operators can’t afford the extra costs to staff their establishments any longer” because the costs outweigh the benefits, she says. 

“The amount of money we make (in that extra hour) isn’t that significant,” says Norah Gibbs, manager of the Horseshoe Tavern, one of the main venues for the NXNE festival.

Tulloch says if visitors to the city want to drink after 1 a.m., they can return to their hotels which can afford to pay the staff for the later hours.

Even anti-drunk driving groups disagree on the issue. 

“We don’t think that drinking hours should be any longer than they are,” says Lisa Waywell of Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Canada. “When people go out drinking they take their own cars, and then drive home impaired.” Waywell says longer hours will only compound the problem.

Metro resident and Horseshoe patron Lisa Gombinsky supports Waywell’s view. “I think it’s unfortunate that (organizers) don’t take into account people who live here, who end up driving downtown,” she says.

But Katrine Ireland of Ontario Students Against Drunk Driving thinks Waywell and Gombinsky’s logic is flawed. “I don’t think longer drinking hours will increase the amount of people who drink and drive,” says Ireland. “People who drink responsibly will continue to do so, and those who don’t drink responsibly will continue to do so, too.”

Len Little, manager of Montana’s Bar and Grill has another concern. He says the shorter drinking hours in Ontario could hurt tourism. 

“When people are deciding on convention sites, the early ‘last call’ can be used against Toronto,” Little says. “People working later these days… would like the option of being able to go out and drink later.”

The ORA’s Rachelle Wood says the only way to get an answer is for the government to extend hours in a 6 month experiment and analyze the effects.

“After that, we’ll keep quiet,” Wood says. 

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