East Toronto BIAs fear for future of many small businesses with return to COVID-19 restrictions, approach of cold weather

Toronto businesses including restaurants, movie theatres and fitness clubs have been forced to close indoor services due to the return to a modified Stage 2 of the province's COVID-19 restrictions earlier this month.

By Ali Raza, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Businesses in East Toronto are worried about closing down after the province placed Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, and Ottawa into its modified Stage 2 of its COVID-19 reopening plan earlier this month.

A modified Stage 2 means restaurants, bars, other food and drink establishments such as nightclubs, will no longer be permitted to provide indoor dining service. Fitness centres, gyms, and movie theatres are also closed. Business Improvement Areas in the community are concerned the move announced by Premier Doug Ford on Oct. 9 would lead to “devastating impacts.”

Ford announced on Oct. 16 that York Region would also revert back to a modified Stage 2. He added in the initial announcement for Toronto that it would remain in Stage 2 for 28 days.

“Twenty-eight days is a lot,” Leslieville BIA coordinator Dominic Cobran said. “Rent period comes within those 28 days.”

Cobran understands the premier’s decision, he said, but pointed to the fact that several establishments in Leslieville have invested heavily in personal protective equipment (PPE) and strategies to fulfill indoor dining with physical distancing despite limited capacity.

“Small businesses have tried their hardest to abide by public health protocols,” Cobran said. “To bring an entire industry to its knees however, we might want to look at another approach. Perhaps tighten enforcement, tighten the measures, these are some suggestions.”

On Oct. 7, data from Toronto Public Health showed bars and restaurants in Toronto were responsible for 34 per cent of the city’s COVID-19 outbreaks.

As several small businesses in the industry have followed public health guidelines and invested in PPE, Cobran believes larger restaurants are responsible for bearing the weight of the data.

“You can’t punish an entire industry in the city,” he said. “Let’s look at other options.”

Beach Village BIA executive director Anna Sebert said while the move further impacts Beach restaurants, it also risks more debt for the business community.

“The businesses affected by modified Stage 2 are the ones who have been the most financially fragile during COVID,” she said. “Moving backwards is going to have a huge negative impact on them, especially as we move into the colder season when foot traffic drops.”

“These businesses are going to struggle, and optimism for the future is dwindling,” Sebert added.

Providing takeout or pickup, being present on all online delivery apps (including those with high fees), marketing on social media to account for lost foot traffic, all the while lacking revenue from indoor dining, are overwhelming challenges having business owners “bracing for the worst,” Sebert explained.

Regarding the Beaches’ fitness studios, they’ve been online since March, with a small window of indoor services.

“It’s not enough to make ends meet,” Sebert said. “Many are scrambling to pay expenses now and falling deeper into debt.”

Small business tenants relying on the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy – announced by the federal government the same day as Toronto went back to Stage 2 – can have 65 per cent of eligible expenses covered until Dec. 19, 2020.

Sebert said while it helps, some businesses won’t see any money until November – after rent is due.

After moving affected regions to modified Stage 2, Ford also announced the province would offer small businesses $300 million in relief, but no details were provided.

The City of Toronto has offered programs – DineOutTO and CafeTO – to help businesses affected by COVID-19, which remain in place. DineOutTO, which offers restaurant exposure through a digital platform, ends Oct. 30. CafeTO, launched in the summer to provide more outdoor dining areas, will inevitably be impacted as colder weather sets in.

The city also deferred property taxes and utility bills during the pandemic, leaving rent as the primary financial challenge for several businesses. A city partnership with RitualOne has also helped restaurants through an online ordering system.

A Toronto Region Board of Trade poll showed 63 per cent of business owners are struggling with implementing digital tools to help revenue. In response, it launched the Recovery Activation Program to help businesses go digital, at no cost.

COVID-19 daily infection rates in the province have remained above 700 for the last week. As businesses prepare to weather the storm, they request the community’s support.

“Everyone knows how important it is to spend locally, but now is the time to take that seriously,” Sebert said.

“Please support our restaurants via takeout, delivery, or a patio experience,” Broadview-Danforth BIA chair Albert Stortchak said. “It’s mid-October, so there are only a couple weeks until rent and fixed cost bills are due. Small businesses need help now.”

“Residents should remember the charm is still there in Leslieville, restaurants like these are integral to our economic and social fabric,” Cobran said. “Help them stay afloat.”

  • Ali Raza is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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