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Coronavirus: Toronto artists transform boarded up businesses with messages of hope

Click to play video 'Artists paint boarded up businesses with art, messages of thanks' Artists paint boarded up businesses with art, messages of thanks
WATCH: Many businesses across Toronto have closed their doors and boarded up their windows during the COVID-19 pandemic, but artists in the city are using the wooden boards as blank canvasses, using it as an opportunity to paint messages of hope. Erica Vella has more.

The George Street Diner shut its doors right before St. Patrick’s Day, and following a break-in on Good Friday, owner Ash Farrelly had the windows boarded up. Now, the drab plywood is being covered up with artwork supporting her business and Toronto’s frontline workers.

Artists across the city have been lending their talents to help bring a little levity to many Toronto businesses that were forced to close amid the pandemic.

“I decided since we were putting all the boards up, that it would be a good idea to get a local artist who volunteered their time, to create something beautiful amongst this misery,” Farrelly said.

Artist Mark Harrison is a regular at the diner at the corner of Richmond St. and George, and is concerned about the survival of small mom-and-pop shops like it. “They don’t have a big corporate cushion behind them,” said Harrison, which is why he decided to volunteer his talents.

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Artist Mark Harrison transforming boarded up windows into a message of hope and a reminder of the business inside.
Artist Mark Harrison transforming boarded up windows into a message of hope and a reminder of the business inside. John Hanley/Global News

Along with painting a glimpse of what life inside the diner used to include, Harrison added an important message about the business that’s continuing. Farrelly, like many other shuttered businesses, has adapted to a delivery model for gift baskets including her Irish soda bread mix.

“It’s been pretty hard because we’ve had to reinvent the wheel here, from working restaurants for 35 years, to now trying to get the product into little mom-and-pop shops and learning to deliver stuff,” Farrelly said.

She said even with the support from loyal customers who miss her Irish breakfast, the deliveries only cover a fraction of her losses. “We’re holding on,” Farrelly said. “We have all the bills at the restaurant and the invoices that were outstanding and trying to make sure that we don’t go down.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Toronto reveals plans for city’s ‘recovery’ phase of COVID-19 pandemic

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Farrelly has been looking at getting access to online buyers, which is something the city announced it will be doing more to assist independent businesses.

The ‘ShopHere’ program, announced this week by Mayor John Tory, is a free service that will help local artists and businesses open online stores within a matter of days. Under the umbrella of the city’s Digital Main Street program, nearly 50,000 businesses are eligible for the program.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to help our main street small businesses get through this crisis,” Tory said.

Farrelly said she wasn’t aware of ShopHere, but would be looking into it.

Street artist Emily May Rose paints a message of thanks to Toronto’s frontline workers.
Street artist Emily May Rose paints a message of thanks to Toronto’s frontline workers. @emilymayrose/Instagram

While Farrelly approached Harrison to paint her diner, Downtown Yonge BIA, with partner Kadence World, commissioned artists to transform the boards on shuttered stores into uplifting murals.

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“Instead of the boarding reminding us of COVID-19 hardship, we are using that space as a thank-you to Toronto’s frontline essential workers and a nod to the city’s resilience,” said Mark Garner, executive director of the BIA.

Street artists including Emily May Rose, Shinobi, Haenahhh, and Christina Mazzulla were commissioned for the pieces at several locations on Yonge Street, including the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.