'If tourists don't come, I don't make money': Shops in Old Montreal say reopening plan does nothing for them

As the province gets ready to gradually do away with several public health rules, some specialty shop owners in Old Montreal say lifting COVID-19 restrictions will do very little to revive their struggling businesses.

Influx of people in downtown core will help restaurants and bars, not shops, merchants say

Shops that cater to tourists in Old Montreal are struggling to stay afloat without visitors from other countries and provinces. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

It's Thursday, and Jerry Joseph's art shop at Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal has yet to make a single sale this week.

Same goes for Nick Corraya, who has owned a souvenir shop on Saint-Paul Street East for 39 years.

For 14 months, the downtown core has essentially been deserted. That should change over the next two weeks as the province prepares to lift several public health restrictions.

As of tomorrow, the curfew will be a thing of the past and people will be able to eat outdoors on restaurant terrasses. Indoor dining in Montreal and Laval is expected to be allowed as of June 7, though that could change.

Joseph and Corraya say all of this means very little to them as long as tourism remains dead in the city.

"If tourists don't come, I don't make money," Corraya told CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Thursday. "Last week, I sold [for] $12.99 only."

The influx of people downtown is great news for restaurants and bars but Joseph says specialty shops will continue to struggle mightily.

Jerry Joseph, owner of MTL Decor in Old Montreal, says he's happy for restaurants and bars that will soon be able to benefit from increased foot traffic downtown, but he doesn't think it will help specialty shops. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"As locals, we don't usually shop at Old Port, we go there for leisure, we go there to have fun, to eat," Joseph said. "If I want to go shop, I usually go to a big shopping centre like Carrefour Laval, the Eaton Centre, Quartier DIX30, Mirabel."

Travel between regions in the province will be also allowed as of tomorrow, and that should help downtown shops. However, Corraya says most of his customers come from abroad.

Nick Corraya says he can go days without making a single sale at his souvenir shop in Old Montreal. (Submitted by Nick Corraya)

"We need people from outside Montreal or Canada," he said. "[Most of my tourists] are from Mexico, Switzerland, Germany, France and other countries. I have had regulars for 39 years, the same clientele that comes to my store."

Since the start of the pandemic, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has unveiled several plans to revive the city's economy.

On Thursday, the mayor outlined a series of measures to spruce up the downtown area this summer and make it more fun, including pedestrian streets, more couches and benches, and outdoor cultural events.

But Joseph wants Plante to emphasize the need for Montrealers to support specialty shops, not just restaurants and bars.

"Sell the Old Port area, not only as an area where there's the Ferris wheel or [a place] where they can go and spend time," he said. "They should think of just going there, having fun while shopping at the same time."

Corraya said he's benefited from federal loans to keep him afloat during the pandemic, but he says after nearly 40 years in business, he may not be able to survive much longer.

"Two months, or three months maximum," he said. "I would like to keep my business open. This is my bread and butter."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak