A visitor walks in an empty hallway at The Fashion Mall at Keystone, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Indianapolis. Simon Property Group, the largest owner of shopping malls in the nation, is closing all of its malls and retail properties because of the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

A visitor walks in an empty hallway at The Fashion Mall at Keystone, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Indianapolis. Simon Property Group, the largest owner of shopping malls in the nation, is closing all of its malls and retail properties because of the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

‘Ghost town’ in the PATH as retailers in downtown indoor networks wait out COVID-19

Indoor pedestrian walkways have lost some of their clientele

TORONTO — Eli Shimonov’s lunch spot reopened after the first COVID-19 shutdown in July, but without the usual hordes of office workers making their way through Toronto’s underground pedestrian network each day, business is “very, very, very, very slow.”

“We’re down probably about 95 per cent,” he said Tuesday during what would have been a busy lunch hour before the pandemic. “Not a great feeling.”

Shimonov owns a Pumpernickel’s sandwich restaurant in the tunnel network known as the PATH. The financial district employees and other office workers who frequented the route disappeared in March when the pandemic forced them to work from home. They have yet to return in their former numbers, though a handful of masked pedestrians were strolling through the space during lunch hour on Tuesday.

The 30-kilometre walkway connects 75 buildings, a handful of subway stations, hotels, tourist attractions and above-ground stores in a winding subterranean shopping centre that’s home to 1,200 businesses, according to the City of Toronto. An estimated 4,600 workers make their living in the system.

Indoor pedestrian walkways that sprung up across North America over the last century offered an escape from the elements in weather-battered downtown cities. In Montreal, workers and shoppers have made use of the RESO, or Underground City, while the Winnipeg Walkway and Downtown Halifax Link offer their own connected tunnels and skywalks as refuge from the outdoors.

But as cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, these enclosed spaces have lost some of their lustre and their clientele.

In Shimonov’s food court, just a few places are open for takeout – chairs are stacked to deter customers from sitting, and the lights are off even at a McDonald’s counter. But less competition doesn’t mean much when there are no customers to serve, he said.

Underground businesses don’t have the option of outdoor seating to attract guests who are wary of indoor dining. Without people stopping for lunch or placing catering orders for conferences and meetings, it’s tough to make up for the lost sales.

“The whole PATH right now is really suffering,” Shimonov said.

Uncertainty hangs over many business owners and workers in the PATH.

Grant Humes, executive director of the Toronto Financial District BIA, said a short-term goal during the second wave of COVID-19 is to ensure small retailers are supported.

“In the medium term, our job is to give workers confidence to come back to the office,” Humes said in a written statement Wednesday.

He pointed to signage promoting mask-wearing and physical distancing. “Protocols are in place and I think office workers will be pleasantly surprised when they’re down here and they see how organized it is.”

Humes expressed confidence that workers will return to their towers eventually, driven by the convenience of downtown Toronto and the collaborative work environments that aren’t possible with everyone working over Zoom.

But those waiting for their customer base to return have to get through at least another season.

In Winnipeg, about 25 per cent of workers in downtown Winnipeg have returned full-time to their offices and another 30 per cent are splitting time between home and office, according to a survey conducted by Probe Research for Downtown Winnipeg BIZ last month.

“That’s a big shift when your primary customer base is downtown workers and less than 50 per cent are back full time,” said Kate Fenske, CEO of the business improvement zone.

The drop in clientele comes at a time of the year when sales in the indoor pedestrian walkway pick up amid cooling temperatures.

“I think that’s going to be a challenge this fall.”

Fenske said her organization is working to promote health safety protocols in the pedestrian walkway and finding ways to make it easier for people to support local businesses – such as working with the city to offer free parking downtown.

Nikky Nikmanesh, manager at a Stitch It garment repair business in the PATH, said she misses the conversations with her customers after 16 years at the shop. Now, with many people’s office clothes collecting dust during the long months of remote work, it’s unpredictable whether even one person will stop in each day.

“We can’t complain because this is for everywhere, everybody. We’re just waiting,” she said.

After 10 years working in the PATH, cleaner Nas Canalas said the silence in the usually bustling space over the last several months is hard to describe.

“Now, you can see this place, it looks like a ghost town,” Canalas said, standing in a nearly empty food court Tuesday. “It’s hard. This is the first time we’ve experienced this since we worked here.”

He’s starting to notice people trickling back in, but he said it’s still a lonely, quiet work day in the nearly empty hallways where he and his coworkers are tasked with deep-cleaning every surface and door handle.

Canalas said he’s grateful to have avoided a layoff so far in the pandemic, but uncertainty about when things will pick up again is tough on everyone.

“We are worried also because of our jobs.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2020.


Just Posted

FILE - Anita Alexander takes an early morning paddle on Lacombe Lake. She has appealed a decision to make the lake into a stormwater drainage catchment. (Photo contributed by Anita Alexander)
Environmental hearing set for Blackfalds’ stormwater drainage into Lacombe Lake

An Environmental Appeals Board hearing over an approval to drain stormwater from… Continue reading

An anti-lockdown protest went ahead outside a café in central Alberta on Saturday, despite pouring rain and a pre-emptive court injunction.  (Photo by The Canadian Press)
Four people ticketed after hundreds attend anti-lockdown rally at central Alberta café: RCMP

MIRROR, Alta. — RCMP say they ticketed four people after an anti-lockdown… Continue reading

A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the internet in North Vancouver, B.C. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Study: Alberta workers paying ‘COVID tax’

An ADP Canada and Angus Reid workplace survey is showing that many… Continue reading

file photo
PM tells Canadians to prepare for one-dose summer, two-dose fall

Chief Public Health Officer says 75 per cent getting first dose is target to avoid fourth wave

Chris Scott, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe, speaks during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at his cafe in Mirror on Saturday. The Whistle Stop was shut down by AHS for not complying with COVID-19 rules. (Photo by The Canadian Press)
Central Alberta café owner and COVID-19 protester released from custody

Chris Scott was arrested at protest rally outside his cafe on Saturday

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Sentries march off after a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of V-J Day and the end of the Second World War, at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. The Canadian Armed Forces is reporting minimal progress at the midway point of its 10-year drive to increase the number of women in uniform. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Military reports minimal progress in drive to add more women to the ranks

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces is reporting minimal progress at the… Continue reading

Hassan Diab holds a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa Friday, February 7 , 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Canada must not extradite Diab regardless of coming French court decision: lawyer

OTTAWA — The Canadian government should not be part of any further… Continue reading

In this Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019 file photo, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, welcomes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during official arrivals for a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Francisco Seco
U.K. eyeing fall for start of detailed trade deal talks with Canada, minister says

OTTAWA — Britain’s trade minister says his country expects to kick-start talks… Continue reading

‘It is a gold mine:’ Builders warned of rising lumber thefts across Canada

The skyrocketing cost of lumber is fuelling a trend that has authorities… Continue reading

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada is prepared at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Nunavut working to get Pfizer vaccine for territory’s teens

Nunavut’s chief public health officer says the government is working to get… Continue reading

A vial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 at a hospital in Sofia, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, prior to the start of vaccination. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Valentina Petrova
Questions remain about the future of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot in Canada

Questions remained Wednesday about the future of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in Canada… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) after the team defeated the Dallas Stars during an NHL hockey game Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Analysis: McDavid NHL’s MVP front-runner in condensed season

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has 100-plus point season

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save as Maple Leafs defenceman TJ Brodie (78) and Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli (73) look for the rebound during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The Leafs and the Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years when the 2020-21 NHL post-season gets underway.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Most Read