Two Tuesdays ago, I had to take my car in to have its snow tires removed. It being July, this was a prudent move. Of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic had conspired against this bit of automotive work, delaying appointments at my particular service centre for months.
I hadn’t been in downtown Toronto since March 12, the day after the NBA season was suspended following the positive COVID-19 test result of a towering French Utah Jazz center named Rudy Gobert —which itself followed Gobert making light of the emerging global public health crisis by jokingly rubbing his hands all over gathered reporters’ recording equipment.
I am fully cognizant that I’m very fortunate not to have to go out every day, but I also believe I’ve handled the pandemic and its physical distancing requirements well. Thanks to delivery services, I haven’t been in a supermarket since April; the only two retail outlets I have consistently visited are the LCBO and Beer Store. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the only recurring bad dream I’ve had in the last four months finds me inside one of the narrow, packed downtown Toronto bars I used to frequent, with 100-plus people shouting over loud music in close confines.
With this in mind, I prepped for the downtown car adventure by eating a hearty breakfast and downing a protein shake. Under no circumstances, I told myself, would I attempt to buy food downtown — although I did take hand sanitizer in part for an anticipated purchase of Gatorade.
After dropping the automobile off and winning the expected argument over the dealership’s attempt to bill me for work that was already covered in my service agreement, I ventured out in what would become a four-hour time-killing exercise.
I began with a five-kilometre run on the Don Valley trail, a dangerously narrow pathway that parallels the stagnant waters of the Don River, with expressway traffic whipping by on the opposite side. For fun, I ran part of it with a mask on in a half-baked lung capacity experiment. The humidex reaching 30 degrees at 9:30 AM cut this idea short however, and I jogged the rest of the route with the mask strapped to the top of my head. After aimlessly wandering around the Port Lands area and trying to envision what it would look like if the Toronto Blue Jays built an open-air ballpark at the foot of Polson Street, I headed into the downtown core.
There wasn’t much to report, other than I noticed the person who now lives in my old condo has awkwardly placed a plastic folding table in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, possibly in a “work from home” arrangement.
While Toronto has been more or less commended for heeding the pandemic restrictions well, it was jarring to see just how dead the streets in the city’s centre were. Standing at the corner of King and Yonge took on the sensation of being in Dallas or Houston — similarly large cities with canyonesque skylines that, unlike Toronto and other metropolises, are in normal times completely devoid of street life.
Since the dawn of the pandemic, the intelligentsia has postulated widely on the future of cities. Close quarters and crowds, after all, are not something most people are pining for at the moment. In a monied, corporate city such as Toronto, white-collar professionals are likely to be more capable than others to make work-from-home something permanent. Meanwhile, many of their employers have spent the last four months coming to realize that they might not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars per month in downtown office rent.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that three people I know have moved or have decided to move from Toronto to Niagara since the pandemic began. That’s likely evidence why Pelham’s real estate market has remained sound despite an unprecedented economic downturn — and likewise because the Niagara Region remains comparatively affordable to the GTA (I suspect a lesson here might be if you’re one of the locals who snickers at the “Toronto folk” moving in, that’s not going to slow down anytime soon).
For instance, what happens to the precarious class of service workers who provide the backbone of an urban economy, if the cities begin losing offices and people?
There are serious ramifications to all this, of course. For instance, what happens to the precarious class of service workers who provide the backbone of an urban economy, if the cities begin losing offices and people?
Here, in a region overly dependent on tourism, it’s happening in its own way. According to a survey of various Niagara Region businesses cited by the Globe and Mail, 40 percent said they had lost three-quarters or more of their normal revenues due to the pandemic. More than half those losses came in the accommodation, food services and recreation industries.
The silver lining, of course, is the likelihood that the tourism sector eventually comes back. At some point people need to partake in some form of leisure again (video out of Niagara Falls from last weekend indicates that this may have started, although probably not safely).
Additionally, as somebody who has spent years working in sports media, I can assure you that there are people who will never stop gambling— which makes the eventual reopening of the casinos a certainty.
Still, the empty streets of downtown Toronto in the age of COVID-19 got me thinking about the possibility of a paradigm shift in how the urban/suburban/rural dynamic works.
After three hours of running, walking, and downing a grape-flavoured Gatorade, I did what I tried not to do, and began getting hungry. My first instinct was to open an app I use downtown to order and pick up food. However, thanks to the planned obsolescence of my 2017 iPhone 6, the battery was dead (possibly because I had been using the Nike Run Club app for several hours to log my mileage, with Pusha T blaring in my ears).
Walking by a few open patios populated by a handful of day-drinkers, I located a shawarma place on Queen Street. At the height of lunch hour, myself and two construction workers were the only people in there ordering.
“It’s been dead, man,” the guy behind the counter told me when I asked how business was.
I found a nearby concrete abutment to sit on, and for the first time in four months, ate something from an outside establishment that wasn’t delivered. I’m not sure if spraying hand sanitizer on the outer tinfoil wrap was necessary, but the food tasted good nevertheless.
Shockingly, my car was ready when I made my first venture back to the service centre.
“We called you,” the woman said, clearly unaware that my battery was dead.
With that, I donned the latex gloves I had left in the trunk and headed home, intending to give the interior my own cleaning when I got there.
Heading west on the Gardiner Expressway, I looked at the CN Tower in the rear view mirror and wondered when the next time I’d be back would be. Not likely for awhile. ◆