Toronto battles SARS economic losses

By JOSEPH CHRYSDALE  |  April 29, 2003 at 3:48 PM
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TORONTO, April 29 (UPI) -- Hours before the World Health Organization announced the lifting of a travel ban to Toronto Tuesday, Canadian politicians and business leaders launched an international publicity campaign to stem billions of dollars of losses from a 2-month-old SARS outbreak.

While travel and tourism and ancillary services were stung countrywide, Toronto has borne the brunt of the economic damage resulting from the WHO travel advisory earlier this month.

With 20 days having passed without a new transmission of SARS in Toronto, Prime Minister Jean Chretien dined and stayed in town overnight Monday. Early Tuesday, Chretien had a closed-door breakfast meeting with Ontario Premier Ernie Eves and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman.

Soon after and several blocks away, the country's largest theatrical producer, Mirvish Productions, held a gala announcing a campaign to encourage travelers back to the city, and to encourage residents to get out and about and visit the city's attractions once again.

After the politicians parted, Chretien said there would be no federal funding to cover business losses, but that the national unemployment insurance system would "introduce special coverage for part-time and self-employed health workers unable to work because of SARS" for which they would otherwise be ineligible. He said it would be impossible to determine a per capita value of loss in Toronto or elsewhere.

At the Mirvish event, a coalition of theaters, hotels and restaurants announced the launch of a campaign dubbed "A Little Bit of T-O," that being Toronto's nickname. Effective through June 1, packages are being offered to encourage a return to the city core. Among them is a $82 (CAD$125) per person deal that includes an overnight stay at one of seven luxury hotels, a live theater performance of either "The Lion King" or "Mamma Mia," and a three-course dinner at one of 13 upscale restaurants.

Mayor Lastman also appeared, saying Toronto's image has been damaged internationally. During his breakfast meeting he announced that "all three levels of government have committed $16 million (CAD$25 million) for the first phase of an international advertising campaign to help Toronto recover quickly."

Dozens of international conferences were canceled when the SARS outbreak was announced. Last week, what was billed as the biggest concert of the year -- Elton John and Billy Joel -- was also canceled without rescheduling as Elton John expressed fears the 120 members of the entourage might spread SARS at other performances.

Those affected by the WHO ban included taxi drivers, many of whom made less than 30 percent of their normal wages, hotel workers and suppliers, and even student nurses who were banned from working at quarantined hospitals.

In separate efforts, Ted Rogers, one of the owners of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, announced Monday that all unsold tickets for Tuesday night's game had been purchased back by the team, and would be available for sale at $1 each. Tickets sold out within hours, and Tuesday will see a capacity crowd of 50,516 people.

The Toronto Transit Commission last week began playing throughout the subway system audio clips of local celebrities encouraging commuters to stay and enjoy themselves downtown.

Air Canada also launched a "Canada Loves Toronto" promotion that will soon offer deeply discounted flights into the city from other Canadian cities.

Canada's largest bank, RBC, also announced Tuesday it was prepared to offer extensions on mortgage payments for those who became either unemployed or quarantined by SARS. It also offered loan extensions to small businesses, and new discounted loans to businesses affected.

Toronto is routinely dubbed the world's most international city by the United Nations. At least 167 languages are commonly used by its residents, many of whom bring family and friends to visit from their native countries. Culture, including theaters, museums and the like in the province of Ontario employs 230,000 people with a $5.6 (CAD $8.6) billion economic impact.

Deaths from SARS in Canada -- the only country outside Asia with SARS deaths -- stand at 21, with several other victims still in critical care.

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