TORONTO, April 23 (UPI) -- Toronto officials Wednesday braced for the economic fallout from severe acute respiratory syndrome following the World Health Organization warning about travel to the Canadian city.
Outside Asia, the biggest SARS hotspot has been Toronto. WHO Wednesday reported 140 cases in Toronto, including 13 deaths. Worldwide, the case count is 4,288 in 27 countries, with a death toll of 251.
Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, called the WHO warning "inappropriate."
"The fact we have not seen any further secondary cases over the last two weeks tells us it has been contained ... no further dissemination -- therefore the community is not at risk," Low said.
Mayor Mel Lastman called an emergency city council session for Thursday to form a strategy to deal with the economic impact as hotels have emptied and bus companies have reported hundreds of thousands in losses.
Air Canada cut capacity 12 percent in April and plans a 16 percent cut in May. Thousands of hospitality industry workers already have been laid off and downtown Toronto hotel occupancy rates have fallen to 48 percent, compared with 70 percent last April.
Major League Baseball warned players to avoid crowds, hospitals and public transportation when playing the Toronto Blue Jays, who begin a nine-game home stand Friday. That said, Elliot Pellman, baseball's medical adviser, added the odds of catching SARS are remote. Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey called the warning "alarmist." Ten teams are scheduled to visit Toronto before the all-star break.
Crystal Cruises of Los Angeles announced it will keep Toronto residents from boarding its ships next month and other cruise lines are considering similar action.
Some 2,000 Tories are scheduled to attend a leadership convention next month in Toronto and fears are mounting over whether the conclave should be canceled. Tory spokesman William Stairs said no decision has been made but the situation is being monitored.
The government of Ontario already has asked Ottawa for disaster-relief funds. Municipal Affairs Minister David Young estimated damage from the disease at $20.6 million (CAD30 million) so far.
Ted Carmichael, the chief Canadian economist for J.P. Morgan Securities Canada Inc., estimated the virus could cut second-quarter growth by half, some $2.5 billion (CAD3.7 billion). Other economists, however, said it is difficult to separate the impact of SARS from the effect of the war in Iraq.
Without quantifying the effect of SARS specifically, the Bank of Canada Wednesday cut its 2003 gross domestic product targets to 2.5 percent for the year from 3 percent in January and predicted a possible hike in interest rates.
"There will be an impact during the second quarter but at this point, we cannot estimate an exact figure for this impact," Bank of Canada Gov. David Dodge told reporters in Ottawa.
He noted the Toronto metropolitan area accounts for 20 percent of the country's total economic activity.
Whether aid will be forthcoming was unclear. Canadian Health Minister Anne McLellan declined to label the outbreak a national emergency. In the past, federal disaster aid has been limited to natural disasters.
"We quite understand that there are economic repercussions to this," Finance Minister Janet Ecker said.
The government has sent 10,000 masks and two mobile X-ray machines to the city and Prime Minister Jean Chretien ate a meal in Chinatown recently in a bid to allay fears.
"This is slaughtering the Toronto economy," Jack Layton, a former Toronto municipal councilor and leader of the New Democratic Party, told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "Where is the federal voice on this? Where is the proactive strategy? It's just being (allowed) to happen."