Niagara businesses crippled by COVID-19 hope Canadians will help them recover

Officials and business owners in the region, which draws millions every year, are relying on Canadians to step up and help them survive without international visitors once the pandemic is over.

'Entire revenue channels literally evaporated overnight,' says winery owner

A viewing area in Niagara Falls is blocked off with yellow caution tape, warning visitors keep their distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Colin Côté-Paulette/CBC)

Back in March, Paul-André Bosc was forced to lay off the vast-majority of staff at the winery has family owns near Niagara Falls.

Then he laid himself off, too.

Now, a few tough months later, he's eagerly looking forward to the day Château des Charmes can welcome guests back and hoping, along with many in the region that draws millions every year, that Canadians will step up to help their businesses recover without international visitors.

Bosc has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years, but said nothing compares to the crippling effects of COVID-19.

"COVID, without a doubt, represents the greatest challenge to our company that was founded 42 years ago by my father," Bosc said.

"Entire revenue channels literally evaporated overnight."

Tourism puts food and yes, even wine, on the tables of some 40,000 people in Niagara Falls, according to Janice Thomson, CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism. It's an industry that generates $2.4 billion for the local economy.

A big part of that business is international visitors, but they'll likely be the last to be able to return once restrictions start to lift. So officials and owners are looking to other Ontarians for support.

Thomson said Niagara's natural splendour leaves space for physical distancing and makes it an ideal destination for staycations or for those looking to explore their own country.

In the meantime, the virus has caused the industry to grind to a halt and left thousands waiting for the call back to work.

5,000 jobs lost

According to the Niagara Workforce Planning Board, 5,000 jobs were lost in the hotel and restaurant industry from March to April.

"We're just waiting for that day, that special day, when we can hear the all-clear that we're COVID-free," said Thomson.

The city has weathered SARS, 9/11 and economic downturns, but like Bosc, the CEO said she's never seen anything like COVID.

"Frankly, nothing has been like this. This is a total lock down."

Janice Thomson is the president and CEO of Niagara Falls tourism. (Colin Côté-Paulette/CBC)

Still, there is a silver-lining to enduring something that doesn't leave anyone untouched, said Thomson.

"Everyone is working hard together, we're all in it together, we know we have to come out of it together and therefore we all share that belief that we're going to continue delivering great experiences for visitors and proving once again that it's safe to play in Niagara Falls."

The city isn't the only place suffering.

Sixty-eight per cent of tourism businesses are currently shuttered, said Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO).

The virus has closed casinos and restaurants, dried up business at water parks and zoos and taken the fun out of amusement parks. Many summer festivals and special events are cancelled or on hold.

"There's a real sense of despair right now in the tourism industry," said Potter.

Businesses have been directed to close their doors to stop the spread. The question now is whether or not they'll survive.

Surveys the TIAO has conducted show 38 per cent of businesses believe they won't be able to open back up.

Areas including Niagara, Haliburton and Prince Edward counties and Muskoka are among the hardest hit in Ontario, she added.

Trying to stay optimistic

However, once the virus does die down and restrictions are lifted, models point to in-province travel coming back first, than domestic and finally international "a long time down the road," explained Potter.

Thierry Clément believes his business will be able to hold on until that happens.

He's preparing for a "difficult year" at the Paris Crepe Cafe and anticipates it could take several years to make up for it. But he believes he can wait it out thanks to affordable rent and a good relationship with his landlord.

Thierry Clément says tourists make up more than half of the customers that visit his Paris Crepes Cafe. (Colin Côté-Paulette/CBC)

That doesn't mean it's going to be easy. Clément estimates tourists make up more than 50 per cent of his customers, so he's aware of the challenge he faces.

"Everybody is going to stay in their home countries and Niagara Falls is touristic," he said. "We are going to lose even if the summer is good. We are not going to have Europe, Asia, American, we are going to lose lots of those customers."

That said, he's trying to stay optimistic.

"We will survive," said Clément. "I have lots of hope in the future."

Hope is what Bosc is holding onto as well.

The spring is typically a season of renewal and, regardless of the virus, the warmer weather means pruning is already going full blast at each of the Château's four vineyards so things are still busy.

"We have no choice. Mother Nature isn't going to pause for a pandemic," he said.

A pair of visitors wearing masks poses by the falls. (Colin Côté-Paulette/CBC)

When the restrictions finally do lift Bosc will be ready to offer tours and tastings out in the country where there's "lots of elbow room."

"We can give people 50 feet of social distancing, not just six," he said.

"You've always got to be hopeful that the future's going to be better than the present and that's what keeps you going."

with files from Colin Côté-Paulette