Empty storefronts. Shuttered theatres. Winter patios. A development boom in the Maritimes. After nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has battered small businesses, transformed people’s daily routines and reshaped Canada’s neighbourhoods.
Here is a look at how the pandemic, and the latest wave driven by the Omicron variant, has affected life along five high streets across Canada.
Park Avenue, Montreal
On a Friday before sundown, Montreal’s Park Avenue is never going to be sleepy – not even in January, not even in a pandemic. The biblical day of rest is about to begin. Ergo, the Hasidic community is shopping furiously.
At Lipa’s Kosher Market, on the east side of the street, all the fixings for a Sabbath feast are flying off the shelves: many, many kinds of challah bread; not just smoked salmon but carp, whitefish and sablefish; Mensch merlot, an Israeli wine.
It would be hard to guess that a public health crisis was tearing through Quebec from the action on Parc. Yes, the famous Rialto Theatre, whose Paris Opéra-inspired façade has stood here since 1924, sits temporarily empty, a victim of the provincewide ban on most indoor gatherings.
But grocery stores have thrived everywhere in Canada for the past two years thanks to restaurant closures. That has been good news for this stretch of Park, home to three of Montreal’s great, distinctive independent grocers. Sales also remain strong at Épicerie Mile-End, across the road, where there are no restrictions on buying grapefruit Perrier, bulk pistachios, bundles of asparagus or Gusta vegan wheat sausage.
Shoppers in this neighbourhood of Orthodox Jews, Outremont francophones and Mile End hipsters have also helped buoy other kinds of businesses, such as the toy store La Jolie Boutique. It had a strong Christmas season despite the Omicron wave and no e-commerce presence, owner Mary Vacondio said.
Being forced to close during the province’s first lockdowns, while big-box stores stayed open, was a frustrating blow for shopkeepers. But since then, people have rallied to the brick-and-mortar storefronts that give the area its bustle. Online shopping may have soared across the world during the pandemic, but on Park Avenue a buy-local counter-revolution has taken seed.
“I think people became conscious of the value of small businesses,” Ms. Vacondio said. “There was a mental shift. … People come and they tell us, ‘It’s important, we want you to stay.’ ”
COVID-19 has left its mark here, of course, as it has everywhere else. Down the street, Martha Wainwright’s event space Ursa is waiting for indoor gatherings to be legal again, now that Quebec’s 10 p.m. curfew has been lifted after about two weeks.
But in keeping with the pandemic turn toward goods and away from services, many places that sell stuff have wind in their sails. Boutique locolocal, a store specializing in the products of Quebec artisans, moved north on Park Avenue to a much bigger location in August. The virus still has a big impact on her business, said owner Catherine Nepveu, but so do other factors, such as switching to the sunny side of the street, where pedestrians are likelier to walk in winter.
“Last year I was pleasantly surprised by the number of sales I had despite the pandemic,” she said. “It’s not that the pandemic was good, you just have to persist.”
– Eric Andrew-Gee
Whyte Avenue, Edmonton
On a Tuesday in January, while the rest of the country was clamping down, Edmonton, it seemed, was opening up.
Alberta remained, in the Premier’s words, “open for business,” as it had been for most of the pandemic. And, with temperatures rising more than 20 degrees in a day, lifting the city out of the worst cold snap since 1969, things along Whyte Avenue felt light and fresh and even hopeful.
Inside Julio’s Barrio, a woman removed her mask to sip a margarita with a bottle of beer tipped into it. At Remedy Cafe, patrons who’d shown identification and proof of vaccination lounged on couches drinking chai.
Down the street at Wee Book Inn, one of the avenue’s longest-standing businesses, Jaye Busch wore surgical gloves and two masks as she dealt with customers. “The early pandemic affected things, but now we’ve been pretty much back in full swing,” she said.
One man bought a hard-to-find Thomas Pynchon book. Another grabbed a copy of The Last Waltz on LP. Upstairs, Fleur the cat licked her paw near a sign asking customers not to pet her.
An interest in books predicting pandemics had subsided, Ms. Busch said, and people were back to their usual reading. “There’s definitely been requests for books to take their minds off things. But we get that fairly regularly.”
Elsewhere, the effects of the pandemic were still evident. Capacity limits, early cut-off for liquor service and bans against dancing and billiards made for quiet nights on a stretch known for its bar and restaurant scene. Walking his beat, Constable Alan Mackay found himself missing the old energy and action. The Princess Theatre sat dark and empty.
Several storefronts were vacant, though it wasn’t always clear whether the businesses were victims of the pandemic or part of the regular churn. Some were already under construction. There would be a new sandwich shop, a coffee place.
Behind the counter at Vivid Print, co-owner Mark Wilson considered the good things. They’d added services – such as printing sewing patterns – and were heartened by the support of their customers, their landlord and the business community. They were hanging on.
Mr. Wilson and his partner were cautious about the virus. They asked customers to wear a mask even when it wasn’t required, and had switched to pickup-only orders for six months. The shop was fully open again, but they were watching the press conferences and the numbers, waiting to see what would happen with the variant and deciding what to do next.
– Jana Pruden
College Street, Little Italy, Toronto
Rocco Mastrangelo Jr. is fuming. The city says his enclosed patio at Café Diplomatico on College Street is contrary to public health rules, but the restaurateur argues he won’t attract customers in winter if he removes two of the glass walls. And given pandemic restrictions on indoor dining, the co-owner of the Little Italy mainstay says the patio is crucial.
“It’s frustrating. I’m done, I’m done. I’m ready to sell the Diplomatico,” he said. “Who gives me the best offer, I will sell it to them.”
A week later he’d simmered down. He couldn’t fight city hall, he realized, so he decided to close the patio, lay off staff and hope things improve.
The sword hanging over his restaurant, which for 54 years has anchored this downtown area, even as it evolved from largely Italian to a cosmopolitan mix, exemplifies the dire effect of the pandemic here.
Christian Aldo, founder and curator of the experimental art space Super Wonder Gallery on College Street, took the chance to retreat last year when their landlord offered them an out on the lease. He believed there were more tough times to come and compared cycles of government support and restriction with mice being lured out with treats and then killed.
“I’m not going for the cheese again,” he said. “If we do it’ll put us out of business for real.”
The Omicron variant hit the area just when many merchants were hoping for a holiday boost to carry them into winter, cutting optimism off at the legs. It’s since grown quieter still; on a few recent evenings the sidewalks were largely empty. The mood was depressed.
How Little Italy comes back remains an open question. Even before the pandemic, the area was fighting competition from a number of new retail neighbourhoods. And the pandemic may prove to have instilled new habits, raising the question of whether the area can have the same appeal.
At the bar Birreria Volo, co-owner Julian Morana has noticed that his friends are more likely to cook at home and aren’t as keen to go out drinking as much.
“I think people are still going to come onto College, but it’s going to take more than just a bar now to survive,” he said, noting his business now relies on the adjoining food and bottle shop they started as a sideline. “I think the next step for us is, because we’re also a tap bar, we’re going to just really focus on doing draft to go.”
The local picture looked quite a bit brighter as recently as last summer. City rules allowing restaurants to extend into the street helped created a buzzy strip. Many evenings the scene was hopping as pandemic-weary Torontonians escaped their homes. But the appeal tailed off as the evenings got chiller.
Foot traffic was down already when Omicron emerged to thwart office parties and hurt retail sales.
The new cheese shop Kiss my Pans struggled through its first holiday season in the area after establishing the storefront in summer. The first two weeks of December were nerve-racking, said founder Jeanne Chai, as they sat on thousands of dollars in product and offered constant discounts. But they hung on, and sales improved as word got out.
“The community has definitely rallied around us and given us so much support,” she said.
– Oliver Moore
King Street, Saint John
In Saint John, where history seems to linger around every corner, change comes slowly.
But on King Street, one of the oldest main streets in North America, two giant holes in the ground are tangible signs of progress. Both are the early stages of major redevelopment projects that promise to bring thousands of people back to the city’s original commercial artery, part of a building boom that’s been fuelled in part by eastward migration during the pandemic.
At the foot of King Street, heavy equipment is preparing the former Coast Guard site for the Fundy Quay development, a $300-million mixed-use waterfront project that plans to add 677 condominiums and five towers, and is set to be completed in 2023.
At the top of the street, demolition work is already finished for a new 12-storey commercial and residential tower at an address that locals still refer to as where the old Woolworth’s was, even though the retail chain moved out in 1994. In between those two properties, on a street that looks onto an increasingly busy cargo port, you’ll find changing attitudes about the future and a growing belief that Saint John is a city on the move.
The pandemic has brought a wave of residents and entrepreneurs to Canada’s first incorporated city, with developers following close behind. While Saint John’s economic revival was beginning before COVID-19 arrived, business owners say it’s been sped up by the shifts in labour patterns forced by the virus. Many of those moving here are Maritimers who left after high school, returning home with money in their pockets and opening businesses.
“In the early stages of the pandemic, it was like we had a mini gold rush,” said Elizabeth Cook, owner of Handworks Gallery, a shop that sells Maritime art, crafts and jewellery on King Street.
Two doors up from her shop, a clothing store in a heritage building that was once a home for Benedict Arnold is moving to a larger location. Further up the street, teenagers are crowding into a new Vietnamese restaurant, the only place in town to get banh mi, or Vietnamese baguette sandwiches.
“As our population grows, we’re seeing an increase in foot traffic, and more people out and about and needing more things. And that’s new for a lot of Saint Johners,” said Ms. Cook, who moved back from Calgary in 2018.
King Street is still a work in progress, and part of a city in transition. Brunswick Square, a once-bustling three-storey indoor mall that anchors the street, remains a wasteland of “for lease” signs and empty retail space. With rising housing prices and an expanding population, there are growing pains, with the local paper full of stories of out-of-province companies buying older properties and raising rents.
But on King Street, at least, there’s something else that’s new: a growing sense of optimism about what lies ahead.
– Greg Mercer
Water Street, Vancouver
Gastown’s Water Street is the kind of street that exists in every major North American city founded in the early 1900s. It’s one of Vancouver’s oldest, lined with historic buildings from the city’s days as a centre for gold-panning supplies, complete with a (fake) steam clock and a (fake) cobblestone street.
Before the pandemic, its lifeblood came from tourists, many sailing on cruise ships docked at the convention centre a short distance away, as well as workers venturing from nearby offices.
Now, the convention centre is still providing the street with some business – by bringing thousands of people downtown for COVID-19 vaccine boosters. That’s how Kitsilano residents Susan Andrews and Geof Petryschuk ended up on Water on a recent Friday at lunch hour.
“This time of day, it’s not too crazy,” said Ms. Andrews during a quick postvaccine lunch at World Wrap Place. She means that it feels safe and comfortable, something that isn’t always the case in this neighbourhood. Its proximity to the Downtown Eastside means that it sees a bigger share than other places of people struggling with substance abuse issues, many of whom lack adequate housing.
That reality has always been part of the Water Street and Gastown life, but it became more visible when the office workers and tourists disappeared during the pandemic. Public-health restrictions have limited access to services, exacerbated the opioid crisis and, the city believes, may have increased the population of people sleeping rough (though Vancouver has skipped its annual census of residents experiencing homelessness for the second year in a row because of the pandemic).
The sense of disorder prompted a few businesses to move out, while some others closed as part of the regular churn. But, in spite of everything, another 33 businesses opened to replace the 34 that shut their doors in the past two years.
Those that are here are determined to hang on, and a slowly returning tide of visitors and office workers is helping. One day a small crowd makes the obligatory stop at the steam clock at noon. A pair of young women take selfies in front of the most-talked-about new arrival on the street: Maison Kitsuné, a French-Japanese clothing and music label with a café attached. A couple from Calgary, here on vacation, study a street map to figure out where to head next.
The local businesses are counting on those visitors to not just buy things, but to repopulate the street and make it seem like the lively mix it once was as recently as the summer, when the patios were full, or even in early December, when there was a rush of Christmas shopping before the Omicron variant scared everyone away again.
At Eduardo Bilardello’s Italian-themed Brioche restaurant, which has been in Gastown for 20 years and recently moved over one block to a Water Street location, it’s quiet – but there is still a scattering of customers at the tables. His catering business has almost evaporated, so this is what he’s relying on.
– Frances Bula
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