London

London reeling from the economic impact of COVID-19: deputy mayor

The full economic impact of COVID-19 on the City of London, its businesses and its cultural industries won’t be known for months, but Deputy Mayor Jesse Helmer says it's is already “very severe.”

Most downtown businesses are closed and the effect on tourism has been “devastating”

An empty Dundas Street on a weekday evening as most stores in downtown London have closed due to COVID-19. (Alvin Yu/CBC News)

The full economic impact of COVID-19 on the City of London, its businesses and its cultural industries won't be known for months, but Deputy Mayor Jesse Helmer said it's already "very severe."

"I think the data is going to lag the reality on the ground," he said.

"I don't think we'll see really good numbers on jobs and employment, for example, for quite a while, but employers are already telling us now that they're significantly impacted."

The majority of businesses in the downtown are closed, according to Barbara Maly, the executive director of the Downtown London Business Improvement Area.

And the general manager of Tourism London, Cheryl Finn said the effect on tourism and cultural events has been "devastating."

"We know that our hotel partners are currently laying off staff. They're down thousands and thousands of room nights due to event cancellations … these are very trying times for the tourism industry in London."

'Very difficult situation'

Helmer said he supports the move by the Ford government to close all non-essential businesses as of late Tuesday.

"I know they didn't make that decision lightly … I think it's a necessary measure, at a time when we really need to contain the spread of COVID-19."

Deputy Mayor Jesse Helmer is concerned about a "cascade of problems" when local businesses faced with a lack of revenue are forced to lay off employees. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

He added the Mayor's Economic Impact and Recovery Task Force will hear and address the concerns of businesses hurt by the pandemic.

The task force began with a conference call with over 50 businesses last Friday, and Helmer said more consultation will be necessary to delineate the key issues.

"I think this is going to be a very difficult situation for all municipalities, and I don't think there's any way around that."

He said cities have to look for ways to find relief for businesses that are facing significant cashflow problems, such as tax deferrals.

"What we don't want to see is a cascade of problems where businesses are impacted by a lack of revenue, and then they lay off workers, and then the workers have to access income support programs. This is the cascade of poor economic impacts that we want to avoid as much as we can."

Helmer said it's going to take all levels of government working together to address the problems.

Impacts to downtown London

Meanwhile, the closure of many shops downtown due to the pandemic has been very hard on businesses, according to Maly.

"But at the same time, it's a serious situation, where I think we all have to be responsible and accountable in our actions. And our hope is, the sooner we can get over this crisis and the turmoil, the sooner we'll be back in business."

The new executive director of Downtown London says the BIA has created and developed an action plan task force, with boards, members and staff spending all of their time addressing the needs of downtown businesses.

Barbara Maly, executive director of the Downtown London Business Improvement Area, hopes the Ford government will provide relief for small businesses during Wednesday's economic and fiscal update. (Submitted by Downtown London)

She said retail storefronts are taking the biggest hit: "I think those who have been able to move to online platforms have doing a bit better, but it's impacting all of us."

Maly said she hopes to hear the Ford government offer relief to small businesses in Wednesday's economic and fiscal update, through rent deferrals and other measures to offset fixed costs.

"We haven't heard a whole lot from the government about small business, and what we have heard, it hasn't been a whole lot compared to … other provinces we've been hearing about. That's our hope, that small business will have some good news coming."

'We will be prepared'

At Tourism London, Cheryl Finn is trying to encourage event organizers to "postpone and not cancel" events.

She said she hasn't heard how London's plans to host the 2020 Ontario Summer Games will be affected.

This year's Ontario Summer Games in London was scheduled to take place from July 30 to August 2. (2018 Ontario Summer Games )

But she's optimistic that when the crisis is over, people will want to get out of their homes and explore all that London has to offer.

"We saw that in the past with SARS and H1N1, that's pretty much the pattern. People will want to get back out and support those businesses … we learned those lessons and we will be prepared."

About the Author

Gary Ennett

Morning News Editor

Gary Ennett is a veteran editor and reporter. He’s been with CBC since the opening of the London bureau in 1998. His email address is gary.ennett@cbc.ca