With the Toronto area generating approximately one-fifth of all of Canada’s economic activity, what’s good for Toronto is good for Canada. The reverse is also true.
The city’s retailers, restaurants, hotels and other businesses already have been hit with the number of SARS cases diagnosed there, and the situation is expected to worsen following last week’s warning by the World Health Organization against any nonessential travel to Toronto. According to official figures, retailers are experiencing declines in traffic of anywhere from 10 to 30 percent, with the higher figure being in the city’s tourist-heavy downtown area. Several Canadian conventions have been canceled, and it’s a safe bet the average number of 15 million visitors to Toronto each year will drop significantly. Bus tours from U.S. border towns are being canceled, and some hotels have vacancy rates of more than 70 percent.
When WHO issued its warning last week, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman reacted angrily, challenging WHO officials to visit the city to see everything was normal. Lastman claimed its warning was irresponsible because it had not contacted Canadian health officials. Further, Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer, claimed the SARS outbreak peaked a month ago in Canada.
According to figures from the World Health Organization and the Ontario Ministry of Health, there have been 4,836 cases of SARS diagnosed in 26 countries, including more than 269 in Canada. 293 deaths have been reported, with 20 occurring in Ontario.
Fear of attracting SARS in Canada was somewhat reduced when the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the risk of contracting SARS in Canada was no greater than in any other country. The CDC also said there was no reason to avoid travel to Toronto, or any other Canadian city, as long as travelers took precautions, such as avoiding hospitals unless absolutely necessary.
"People are completely overreacting and are making decisions based on what they read in print and not on medical information," said John Houghton, vice president of sales and marketing for the Toronto Convention Center.
The scare is even being felt in Quebec City, some 500 miles from Toronto, where registrations for conventions are down by 30 percent. That worries Pierre Bellerose of Tourism Montreal, who said it’s an indication that many people don’t have a clear understanding of the geography of Canada.