TORONTO — The swarm of Bay St. workers stepping out for a lunch break or headed to Union Station to start their weekend a few hours early can hardly be found on a recent Friday afternoon.
Empty streets, hallways in which you can hear a pin drop and no crowds along the usually busy King streetcar route have become the norm in Toronto’s financial district since mid-March, when the country’s biggest banks and consulting companies ordered their staff to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Avoidance of the district may be helping to quell the spread of the deadly virus, but the quiet has been heart-breaking for hundreds of businesses that cram the city’s underground PATH system, fill up ground floors of office towers and nestle into nearby side streets.
"In the downtown core, nobody's really reopened unless you're a McDonald's or Tim Hortons," said Melissa Patterson, the owner of three Cafe Plenty locations, two of which are in the financial district and have been temporarily closed.
"There's nobody down there to buy food or buy coffee from us. It really is such a ghost town."
Patterson started offering home delivery after COVID-19 exploded across the city. Her third cafe near St. Patrick subway station has reopened, but it's only bringing in a few hundred dollars a day.
Plans for a fourth location with a large commissary kitchen have been scrapped. While she was able to get out of her lease, she lost her deposit.
The hustle and bustle Patterson grew accustomed to in the six years since she set up a shop at Yonge and King St. and the two years since she opened a spot on the PATH won't be coming back soon.
In late May, Toronto Mayor John Tory urged large businesses in the downtown core to keep their workers home for the summer. At least 24 of the city's biggest banks, universities and consulting firms all obliged.
"People are not at the office, and a lot of businesses are not intending to go back. Right now I am not expecting to put any money in my pocket," said Patterson, who fears companies will switch to permanent remote work like Shopify Inc. has vowed to do.
"It's been a really upsetting time because I've been doing this for eight years, and I feel like I'm starting all over again."
Grant Humes, the executive director of the Toronto Financial District, has heard plenty of stories like Patterson's, but is hoping small businesses in the neighbourhood can hang on with the help of landlords and government relief programs.
He is anticipating that this will be a slow summer for the area because when he recently ventured into the downtown core he saw only a sprinkling of people.
"It feels like a weekend," he said. "It feels different than it did before."
Lisa Ferguson also noticed much less traffic in the area last week, when she reopened Hangar 9, a fashion business at First Canadian Place that is she is a partner in.
She feels encouraged by the nearby restaurant patios she is seeing slowly come back to life, neighbouring businesses that are welcoming customers again and the pitter patter of footsteps across office buildings getting a bit louder.
Customers, she said, are now popping over to her store for comfortable but trendy outfits they can wear at home to put them in the work frame of mind and to look good on video conferences.
She's not sure when the district will come roaring back to life, but for now, she's hopeful.
"We're in survival mode and I can't say I had the best June ever, but it's not the worst June ever, so I'm being optimistic."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2020.
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Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press