Coronavirus: Small business closures threaten Toronto’s culture, owners say

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WATCH ABOVE: Mary Ng, minister of Small Business and Intl. Trade, explains the government’s response to small businesses who can’t make rent during the COVID-19 pandemic – Apr 1, 2020

Sam Conover has been running the numbers, trying to figure out how long she can keep the lights on at her Toronto-based lingerie store after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to temporarily move the business online.

Not only was opening Broad Lingerie, which specializes in bras for larger bust sizes, Conover’s dream, it was also part of an effort to revitalize the once economically depressed Danforth East neighbourhood she calls home.

“I fear that this is going to result in going back to the bad old days where everything is boarded up, and the only things that are able to survive are, you know, a big Shoppers Drug Mart,” Conover said.

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Conover is one of a number of small-business owners in Toronto struggling to stay afloat as they grapple with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The prospect of permanent closures raises questions about whether Canada’s most populous city will come out of this crisis with its distinct texture intact, and is top of mind for Toronto Mayor John Tory.

“One of my greatest fears is that Toronto comes through this crisis and sees its main street businesses decimated and our streets devoid of the activity that make our city’s life in normal times so exciting and so fulfilling,” Tory told a news conference this week.

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Toronto restaurant launches during COVID-19 – Apr 15, 2020

Not the least, he noted, because of the businesses’ importance to the economy.

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“I don’t have to tell you that Toronto’s main streets are absolutely critical to the success of our city,” Tory said. “They are the backbones of our residential neighbourhoods and an important component of the quality of life that we all enjoy. And we use them as a way of selling people on the Toronto experience.”

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Conover said she was able to pay her two staff members until the end of March, but after that, she had little choice but to lay them off — temporarily, she hopes.

She’s now running the online store on her own, but it’s unclear how long that will pay the rent, particularly as the shutdown goes on and would-be customers start cutting back on spending.

“I was always working a lot, but it’s harder now, not knowing is this work for anything if I might end up having to shut my doors completely?” she said.

Her landlord has said she may be able to defer May rent and Conover has applied for the loan the federal government is offering to small businesses. But she said if she’s approved, it may lead to a pile of debt she’s unsure she’ll be able to climb out of.

READ MORE: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: Small businesses shutter amid coronavirus pandemic

Those federal safety nets have already failed Vesuvio Pizzeria and Spaghetti House, a family-owned business that has been a fixture of the Junction neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end for 63 years.

Despite offering delivery and take-out during the pandemic, the owners announced in a Facebook post that they could no longer afford to stay open and would not reopen after the crisis passes.

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“We have always felt that Vesuvio is more than a restaurant. It’s a labour of love, it’s our second home, it’s where our families have grown up, it’s part of the community,” the announcement reads.

“Our sincere thanks to everyone who supported our family business and enjoyed our food and hospitality for the last six decades.”

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Navigating rent and loans during the COVID-19 outbreak – Apr 1, 2020

It’s that fate Brooke Manning is working diligently to avoid, taking a multi-pronged approach to keep her seven-year-old business open.

Likely General — part retail store, part event space and part art gallery — has moved its operations online and Manning said she’s spending hours delivering local orders in an effort to make as much money as possible.

A couple of artists she regularly works with have also launched an online fundraiser to keep her in business, with a goal of raising $25,000 — the equivalent of two months’ operating costs. So far, it’s raised $10,000.

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“After seven years of working my butt off at what we’re doing — I never stopped working — to think that it would all end….That would just kill me.”

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