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SARS affects more than health

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TORONTO, Jul 21, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A pick-up line and a martini with a shot of ... hand-sanitizing gel?

That was the courtship ritual that seemed to be catching on in Toronto bars earlier this spring. Although the worst of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak may be over, Toronto is struggling to nurse its tourism and hospitality sectors back to health and recover from the negative publicity the city has received.

More than 800 people -- mostly in Asia -- died because of SARS but Toronto, the only city outside Asia that suffered outbreak of the flu-like disease, was deeply affected. In Canada, the disease was deemed responsible for the deaths of 40 people.

Public health officials were dealing with an unknown sickness and a serious health crisis that led the World Health Organization to issue warnings against traveling to the city just across Lake Ontario from New York state. And from that illness, a secondary SARS-related crisis was borne -- dubbed "RATS" for Reluctant American Tourist Syndrome by one Toronto newspaper columnist.

"Combined with the war in Iraq and the slowing economy, SARS is just devastating to the industry," the Greater Toronto Hotel Association's Nick Vesely, said in June. "Thousands of jobs are at stake as are millions of dollars in revenues and taxes."

Indeed, things looked quite bleak for Toronto as it suffered through icy gray weather well into May, which made many feel that winter that would never end. People that normally may have enjoyed the occasional dinner out opted to stay in. Cabin Fever replaced Saturday Night Fever.

WHO officials warned of the dangers of "recent travel or visit to an identified setting in Canada where exposure to SARS may have occurred" and "face-to-face (within 1 yard) contact with, or having had direct contact with respiratory secretions and/or body fluids of a person with SARS."

As a result, the Conference Board of Canada cut its growth forecast for Toronto economy by almost CAD1 billion -- about $710 million -- because of SARS. As spring tried to push through a long winter, unemployment edged up. Restaurants and nightclubs alike notice the drop in customers.

"We noticed a significant decrease with regards to our American clientele," said Shelley Wilson, director of marketing at The Guvernment nightclub. Wilson said that about one-third of a normal Saturday night crowd was from Detroit; Buffalo, N.Y.; and surrounding areas across the border, but there are now virtually no Americans coming.

"The media has done a very good job of making people afraid. It's probably going to take a year -- and I've heard even up to three years -- before things return to normal," said Wilson, who even had to dispel the fears of their disc jockeys and contacts in Britain.

To counter the financial downturn, hotels executives, events planners and government officials are pitching in to nurse Toronto back to health. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves has called on the Canadian government to provide immediate "disaster relief" to counter the effects of the SARS outbreak.

In one of the biggest of SARS recovery efforts, Toronto will be the site of a Rolling Stones concert on July 30. The outdoor concert will also feature AC/DC, The Guess Who, Rush, Justin Timberlake, The Tea Party, Blue Rodeo, Sam Roberts, The Flaming Lips, Kathleen Edwards, The Isley Brothers, Sass Jordan, La Chicane and hosts Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi with "Have Love Will Travel."

Organizers expect as many as 500,000 people to attend, including busloads of people from as far as New Mexico, making it one of the largest concerts ever. Tickets are selling for about $16. Proceeds are to go to benefit Toronto's healthcare workers on the front lines of the SARS battle.

Meanwhile, as Toronto's yearly Caribana festival approaches and the city prepares for a two-week celebration of Caribbean culture and music, organizers are optimistic that the usual 1 million attendees will turn out. And The Metro Toronto Convention Center is working trying to reschedule about seven conferences, each of which bring in at least 5,000 people.

"The recovery plan is not going to be single-step process, obviously," said MTCC Vice President of Sales and Marketing John Houghton. "What has happened is that people have a perception of what went on, and the perception has little to do with reality. Last year in the United States, 36,000 people died of influenza. In Toronto 38 people died of SARS ... We are now out there trying to explain to people what the reality was. It was not necessarily what was seen on TV screens in the headlines in the newspapers."

Indeed, local health officials and those in the hospitality and tourism sectors have felt that the media didn't portray the strange mix of fear and normalcy that stirred in the cold Toronto air this past spring.

"People have to remember at the height of SARS that we were dealing with a very serious health issue, and a new and emerging illness," said Patrick Casey, spokeswoman for the regional municipality of York.

"Unfortunately, from a tourism standpoint, people would get their SARS update from CNN, and CNN would spend a lot of time to find someone walking around Toronto with a mask on. But that was not a reality here with the general public."

Many hope that the cloud of uncertainty that had affected a normally lively Toronto spring and summer has begun to lift. But the effects of SARS -- psychological and financial alike -- remain, even if the spread of the disease is slowed.

Toronto lost out on about $180 million due to a continuing slump in tourism, according to experts at KPMG.

"Significant concern exists as to how strong leisure demand will be during July, August and September. Advance bookings for these traditionally leisure-oriented travel months are very weak, particularly in the Toronto market," said Lyle Hall, managing director of KPMG's Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism practice.

But most important, from a health standpoint, medical officials claim they have learned much about SARS. And although experts feel that the disease is here to stay, the World Health Organization recently declared that SARS had been contained around the world, with no new cases since June 15.

Now, as Toronto prepares for one of the largest outdoor concerts ever, the city's hotels and restaurants are hoping the tourists will return.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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