Working, learning at home leaves downtown Montreal empty and businesses struggling

Six months into the pandemic, the city estimates it has lost more than 90 per cent of its regular downtown traffic.

Six months into pandemic, city estimates it has lost more than 90 per cent of regular downtown traffic

A city analysis of public transit and other data estimates that currently there are only about 50,000 people who regularly spend time downtown — less than 10 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Downtown emptied out last March and remained quiet through the summer as COVID-19 hit Montreal harder than any other Canadian city.

And with the number of new cases creeping upward, it's unclear when the city will return to pre-pandemic activity levels, according to a report presented to Montreal's executive committee Wednesday morning.

While some sectors, notably retail, have rebounded, restaurant and hospitality businesses — especially those concentrated downtown — are struggling. Unemployment remains at double what it was a year earlier.

Luc Rabouin, borough mayor of Plateau-Mont-Royal and the executive committee member responsible for economic development, said Montreal's businesses risk going under without government intervention.

"We will still need, for a good amount of time, public aid for the most affected sectors," he said. "We are going to have to work together, and we are going to need resources."

Véronique Doucet, director of the Service du développement économique de Montréal, presented the report that indicated 598,400 people regularly spent time in downtown Montreal before the pandemic, based on public transit use and other city data.

Of those, about 60 per cent worked downtown, and the rest were mostly students and tourists.

But the city estimates that by the end of the summer, only about 50,000 people were regularly spending time downtown — less than 10 per cent of regular traffic.

Based on the current health rules, the city projects that as much as 20 per cent of regular downtown visitors could return in the coming months. But as hundreds of new cases are once again reported in the province each day and with the government imposing new restrictions on bars and retirement homes, that forecast may change.

When it comes to white-collar work that used to be done from office buildings, such as insurance, finance and administration, Doucet said these sectors have largely adapted to working from home, and a timeline for when they may return downtown is unclear.

The report says there are several factors that make the situation in Montreal fragile, notably an end to government emergency aid programs and the possibility of a second wave of infections.

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