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One-Two Punch Hits Canada

Toronto is back on U.N. warning list in ongoing SARS scare as a 'mad cow' case adds new fear.

May 27, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — There is no place that says Canada like Barberian's Steak House. You could always get a fine Alberta-bred filet mignon here, and generations of people have.

That was before last week, when Canada was hit with what some analysts are beginning to call the economic equivalent of "the perfect storm"-- a renewed outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, with 11 new probable cases in Toronto, and a confirmed incidence of "mad cow" disease that has left some diners leery of beef.

Arron Barberian had no choice. The Alberta filet got yanked off the menu last week, in favor of USDA Prime. But business is still barely half of normal. Two restaurants down the small downtown side street are closing their doors, and Barberian fears that he may soon have to lay off some of his seasoned, white-aproned waiters.

"This is pretty brutal stuff," Barberian said Monday, surveying a city that only a week ago declared it had "beaten" SARS and made progress overcoming its economic woes. "There's never, ever been a slowdown like this. It's totally devastating."

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came when the World Health Organization -- whose advisory warning against nonessential travel to Toronto was lifted only 12 days ago -- said Monday that it was placing Toronto back on its list of SARS-affected areas. The international organization did not renew its recommendation against travel to Toronto.

"We thought we'd turned the corner, no question," said Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Toronto City Council's economic development and tourism committee.

Canada, which led the world's seven most industrialized nations in economic growth in recent years, this week is expected to revise its economic forecasts downward. The Canadian dollar took its sharpest one-day plunge in 26 years last week, and Toronto city officials temporarily pulled the plug on a $128-million marketing plan intended to attract tourists.

Who, they reason, would pay attention now? These days, Canadian television is little more than a parade of grim-faced cattle ranchers, worried government officials and epidemiologists talking about infection, quarantine and methods of transmission.

Health officials toss out phrases such as "working quarantines" for exposed health-care workers (go to work with a mask on if one must but please don't take public transit) and "the new normal" -- a day-to-day reality in which Canadians get used to life on the defensive.

"It seems as though every time we turn around, we're facing something else. SARS, then SARS again, and then mad cow," said Terry Mundell, president of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Assn., which has reported substantial job losses in restaurants alone -- before the latest outbreaks.

"We're probably looking at a two-year effort to recover from this."

Now, the marketing campaign has been delayed by public officials convinced that they'll get more bang for their buck if the advertisements aren't competing for attention with headlines about new SARS cases.

By far, the tourism and hospitality industry has been hardest hit by SARS and, to a lesser extent, by the single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, identified last week in a cow in central Alberta. By the end of April, even before BSE was found, 12,000 restaurant jobs had been lost in Toronto -- 10% of the city's restaurant workforce -- and hotels were reporting losses of up to $130 million.

Overall, tourism losses from SARS were predicted to reach $2 billion this year -- before the latest outbreaks were reported.

"Quite honestly, these numbers continue to roll. Unlike major other occurrences which have happened, there always seemed to be kind of an endpoint to them," Mundell said. "This one isn't like that. Here we thought we had rounded the corner. The WHO had lifted the travel advisory, the CDC gave everybody the green light. Great job. Great effort. And then on Thursday we start all over again."

At the Holiday Inn downtown, where half the clientele comes from the United States, 66 of the hotel's 225 full-time staff have been laid off.

"It's not really mad cow. Mad cow, you just stop eating beef. It's another thing to go to a place where there's a disease that they don't even know how you catch it," said Marlin Keranen, the general manager. "Nobody quite frankly wants to go around wearing a face mask on vacation."

In fact, hardly anyone wears face masks in Toronto -- the public seems to accept officials' word that affected hospitals are the only real points of risk.

But tourists don't know that, Keranen said. "I was in L.A. on vacation when this whole thing broke. I said, 'Hi, we're from Canada,' and they said, 'Hey wait a minute, I gotta go wash my hands.' People in the elevator moved over. I am not kidding you."

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