Niagara 'hemorrhaging' with border closure and businesses being shut down by COVID-19

Like the millions of visitors that are attracted to the region every year, COVD-19 has come to Niagara, and its effects are being felt in nearly every industry, from tourism to agriculture.

'To have everything grind to a halt is absolutely horrible,' says Mayor Jim Diodati

Travelers cross the Rainbow Bridge into Canada on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, after President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to close the U.S Canada border to non-essential travel in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but trade will not be affected. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/The Associated Press)

Clifton Hill is quiet, the SkyWheel isn't turning and the crowds that typically surround the thundering spectacle of Niagara Falls are considerably more sparse than usual.

Like the millions of visitors that are attracted to the region every year, COVD-19 has come to Niagara, and its effects are being felt in nearly every industry, from tourism to agriculture.

"Niagara Falls right now is hemorrhaging, there's no question about it," said Mayor Jim Diodati. "To have everything grind to a halt is absolutely horrible."

News non-essential traffic will be halted at the border was yet another blow for the community already reeling from the new coronavirus.

The city is home to 40,000 people who rely on tourism to put food on the table, said Diodati, adding thousands of them have already received layoff notices.

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati says his city is hurting from COVID-19 and the border closure. (Submitted by Jim Diodati)

Among those layoffs is Eric Hitchcock, general manager of Canadiana Productions Inc., which operates the Oh Canada Eh? Dinner Theatre on Lundy's Lane.

"It's kind of head-spinning how rapidly things have changed," said Hitchcock, who explained the theatre isn't able to financially support about 50 people — including him —while its doors are closed.

He estimated Americans and tours from places including the U.K. and Australia make up about half of the clientele.

With the border shut and international travel all but dried up, the theatre is down to a skeleton crew and things such as carpet rentals and even garbage pickups have been dropped.

"Anything we can do to save money is essential because we don't know how long it's going to take to get back on our feet," said Hitchcock.

About 13 million people flock to the falls city every year and about three million of those are Americans, according to Niagara Economic Development.

Oh Canada Eh? Dinner Theatre has already cancelled 17 shows, and it's losing money with every ticket return. (Lee Siegel/Canadiana Productions Inc.)

Visitors usually pour $2 billion into the region every year, but COVID-19 has already left businesses struggling to keep up.

"It is extremely difficult," said Mishka Balsom, CEO of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce. "I think we have seldom seen a climate where we make one decision at 8 o'clock in the morning and by 11 o'clock it is already outdated."

People whose lives, work and education may be divided across the border are also struggling to come to grips with what the latest developments mean for them.

As is agriculture in Niagara, which relies on temporary foreign workers who will now need to self-isolate for 14 days before coming into Canada.

Balsom was quick to note that employers understand trying to "flatten the curve" of coronavirus cases is important for getting back to business as usual.

"They're supportive of putting the health of Canadians first … they're just scared about this uncertainty," she said, adding they'd like to see more support from the government.

"Right now the business community says we need significantly more than what is being offered to us."

Many of the city's destinations were shut down even before the border was closed. Victor Ferraiuolo, communications manager for Niagara Tourism, said he's banking on that precaution meaning things will return to normal more quickly.

Ferraiuolo said he's hopeful the government will look at the situation in specific jurisdictions and roll back restrictions based on what's going on there.

"If we were able to look at us and say 'There's no new cases for a significant, prolonged period of time,' there may be some scaling back of the orders or protocols that have been put in place by the government."

Mayor compares COVID-19 to gangrene

Oh Canada Eh? has been forced to cancel 17 shows so far, But like Ferraiuolo, Hitchcock said he's holding on to a faint hope that the theatre will be able to reopen soon — preferably sometime in April.

If they're forced to stay shuttered into May it could be fatal for the family business that's been operating for decades.

Still, Hitchcock says Niagara businesses have weathered tragedy before, including 9/11 which saw about 25 per cent of the theatre's business disappear, so he has faith they can see this latest threat through.

In the meantime, the region's mayors have created a Niagara Economic Rapid Response Team to support local businesses and meet their needs.

Mayor Diodati said the purpose of the team is to take action, comparing COVID-19 to gangrene.

"If you have it in your finger, better to lose the finger than the hand, the arm or the body," he said.

"We accept we're going to lose the finger and we're trying to save the rest of the body and be prepared for what happens afterwards."