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Toronto businesses were hit hard by the SARS epidemic, according to a survey released Thursday by the Toronto Board of Trade, which said it is launching a campaign to help businesses recover.

The results of an on-line survey of 930 businesses in the city showed 75 per cent suffered losses as a result of SARS, with 43 per cent of respondents reporting lost revenue. Other SARS-related challenges were delayed or lost contracts, lost customers, employee absenteeism and higher operating costs as a result of having to alter business practices.

Roughly 10 per cent of employers were forced to lay off staff and another 10 per cent expect to do so; one in five has implemented a hiring freeze.

The board's CEO and president Elyse Allan told globeandmail.com that the board is working with members, industry and all three levels of government on public policy solutions aimed at helping businesses and employees.

"There has been a tremendous ripple effect with SARS where you have virtually no cash flow," Ms. Allan said. She said the board has spoken to banks about increased flexibility on mortgages and loans and "in the informal talks we had they seem to be co-operative." The board will also propose delays on corporate and property tax payments to the government.

The board will ask governments to change the two-week waiting period for employment insurance so that laid-off workers can collect their EI immediately.

According to Statistics Canada, employment in Ontario dropped 27,000 last month, with 14,000 jobs lost in the health sector and another 12,000 lost in the hotel and restaurant industry. Statscan said Toronto accounts for half of the jobs lost in the health sector, while the entire provincial decline in the hospitality industry is concentrated in Toronto.

The survey showed that less than half - or 46 per cent - of Toronto businesses had contingency plans in place when the outbreak hit.

"I strongly encourage our members to share contingency plans and best practices, and learn from each other," Ms. Allan said.

Respondents to the survey came from a select sampling of Board members, including a cross-section of small, mid-sized and large Toronto-based employers from all sectors of business. Results are considered accurate within plus or minus 5.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.