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Can Pride help Church St. businesses recover from COVID-19?

More than 200,000 protesters are expected at Sunday’s Pride parade, and over a million people are expected to attend related events during the celebrations, marking a welcome return to norms for businesses in the epicenter of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community would be before the pandemic.

“We really need these sales to get out of the hole after two years of limited or no sales,” said Dean Odorico, one of the general managers of Woody’s and Sailor, a performance and dance club on Church Street. “It will take quite a while to make up for lost time.”

Local businesses are still suffering significant pandemic-related losses over the past two years. According to the city’s annual employment survey, Toronto lost 3,090 businesses between 2020 and 2021.

Odorico said his business had no revenue in the first year of the pandemic and was constrained in the second year due to capacity restrictions and other COVID-19 regulations.

During those two years, the club did not have the financial resources to repair the fixtures and other equipment needed for the venue, which has yet to be done as thousands of dollars were spent on plexiglass dividers, air purifiers, sanitizing products and other PPE.

“It will probably take years to recoup the losses,” he said.

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), 80 percent of all Toronto businesses have not fully recovered, while 29 percent have not even started to recover and worry it never will. The average Toronto small business COVID-19 debt is more than $280,000.

Pride celebrations are a big part of the city tourism business, which has been severely impacted by lockdowns and restricted travel, according to Destination Toronto executive vice president Andrew Weir. In 2019, Toronto generated $10.3 billion in visitor spend in 2019 but a loss of $7.5 billion in 2020 and a loss of $5 billion in 2021.

And while travel is picking up, it will take a while to recover as urban destinations lag behind, he said.

“During the pandemic, people went camping and to resorts to get away from the city,” Weir said. “It’s important that we show people that now is the time to come back and festivals like Pride do that.”

Odorico hopes this year’s Pride will do just that. “Tourism is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, but Pride could be the event to bring them back.”

Sherwin Modeste, executive director of Pride Toronto, said celebrations and events for the month leading up to the pandemic brought in $1.6 million to $2.7 million in revenue, with similar numbers forecast for this year. In 2019, Pride Month supported 3,500 temporary jobs and generated $149 billion in tax revenue.

“Pride has a huge impact on the entire Toronto economy,” he said. “But LGBTQ+-powered businesses in particular will benefit from the sheer volume of people coming to town to party.”

For the summer, Pride Toronto hired more than 270 local drag artists, performers, musicians and DJs for various events to help those most financially impacted by the pandemic, Modeste added. There is also a food truck zone to support local restaurants and entrepreneurs.

“We’re seeing a steady increase in revenue since indoor dining was introduced in the winter,” said Keir MacRae, one of the owners of Hair of the Dog, a Church Street pub and restaurant, “but we’re definitely seeing a slump in sales in June . June is our busiest month.”

This year, Pride feels different, he said. Customers who usually walk away during the festival because of the noise and big crowds are keen to join this year.

“We expect a busy week and a return to pre-2020 viewership,” he said. “I don’t think Pride will be more subdued this year because of COVID.”

Gairy Brown, Executive Director of PRISM Events, is hosting five indoor and two outdoor events over Pride weekend and has sold 10,000 tickets to date. He expects a total of around 14,000 tickets to be sold.

“Pride has a tremendous impact on the hospitality industry,” he said. “Hotels, restaurants and bars all need this.”

However, with COVID-19 cases still surging every day and monkeypox hitting Toronto, Modeste said the celebrations must follow public health guidelines.

“There’s excitement this year, but there’s also worry,” he said. “We’re not fully out of the pandemic yet.”

He said COVID-19 guidelines are in place with regular cleaning schedules, signage to indicate mask wearing and social distancing, and online events for those not comfortable being in large crowds. Pride Toronto also expanded festival space into Nathan Phillips Square to ensure events are not as crowded as previous years.

In partnership with Toronto Public Health and Public Health Ontario, the festival will be distributing monkeypox pamphlets to provide attendees with accurate information and adequate signage, Modeste said.

Storm Crow manager Sarah Cannon said sales are back to full strength. As the restaurant has the largest terrace on Church Street, customers not comfortable inside have the option of alfresco dining.

“There’s a lot of anticipation because people haven’t been able to celebrate properly in the last two years,” Cannon said. “I think this will be the best Pride yet.”

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