Downtown Toronto trails other North American cities in pandemic recovery, study says

More than two years after COVID-19 struck, Toronto hasn't gotten back to even half its level of pre-pandemic activity, according to a new study.

Canada's largest city only back to 46% of pre-pandemic levels of activity, research suggests

Transit riders take a streetcar on King Street in downtown Toronto last month. Ontario lifted mandatory mask rules on transit and in hospitals starting June 11. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

More than two years after COVID-19 first struck, Toronto hasn't gotten back to even half its level of pre-pandemic activity, lagging behind many cities in North America, according to a new study.

A joint project between the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley called "Death of Downtown?" compared mobile device activity in 62 metropolises between March and May of this year, against the same time frame in 2019.

The research found downtown Toronto had only gotten back up to 46 per cent of pre-pandemic levels of activity— about the same as Calgary, New Orleans, and Oakland, Calif.— placing it 52nd on the list.

Most Canadian cities fared similarly, all reaching between 43 and 56 per cent of pre-pandemic activity levels.

Halifax tops Canadian cities on list

A major factor is that Canada was slower to come out of its COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, said study co-author Karen Chapple, who is the director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

"People went home at Omicron," she said, referring to the huge wave of infections brought on by the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus that spread around the world in late 2021.

"So that delayed the comeback," Chapple told CBC Toronto.

The only Canadian outlier was Halifax, which reached 72 per cent. 

"Halifax is the number-one comeback city in Canada," Chapple said. "We think it's because of all the new residents that came ... They're working from home but they're living downtown."

She said Toronto is best compared to a place like New York City, which serves the same function in the U.S. as Toronto does in Canada. But New York City has bounced back a lot faster, and was at 78 per cent of its pre-pandemic activity this year.

Downtown Toronto has a lot of professional service workers at places such as law firms and insurance companies, which don't necessarily require a return to the office, Chapple said.

"[New York] has a much more diverse economy, and I think that's one of the main lessons here," Chapple said.

Marcy Burchfield, vice-president of the Economic Blueprint Institute at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, agreed the city's pandemic restrictions — among the most long and severe in North America — are partially to blame for the slow recovery. She said the institute's findings have shown the trajectory of a city's recovery is directly linked to the length of its lockdowns.

However, she said the city saw 30 per cent growth in foot traffic in July.

"We just see the recovery really going up and up; you can see the vibrancy on the streets, and that will just continue," Burchfield said.

An individual crosses the street in downtown Toronto's business district.
Office workers are pictured her commuting through downtown Toronto in April. Workers are returning to the office in Canada's largest city but at a slower rate than in other North American cities, according to a new study. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement to CBC News the main reason for the city's slow recovery could be a slow return to in-person work, especially at larger companies with downtown offices.

He also said the labour shortage has also made it difficult for companies to set rules for employees, and are instead trying to offer incentives.

"By definition, this is a slower process but it reflects the fact that a stricter approach may have caused some of those very same employees to change jobs," Tory said.

Employees are reporting high satisfaction upon returning to the office just three days a week, Tory said, which he believes will only go up in the fall. He also said transit ridership is back to 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and pedestrian counts are continuing to climb, based on city traffic data.

Tory said the future of work will be a "key focus" of the city's pandemic recovery plan, which includes consulting with an advisory panel of Toronto business leaders. Their first meeting is Aug. 16.

"This is of particular importance for the downtown's economic recovery — we need to look seriously at the future of work and make sure we are adapting to that and making sure our downtown adapts as well," he said.

Chapple said it's still early days, and she is optimistic Toronto will eventually get back to where it was before COVID-19.

"I think we're going to get back," she said.

"I think we're going to be back to 120 per cent in a couple of years." 


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