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.

Business

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, reported 323 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)
‘We’re in a danger zone,’ says Hinshaw

The province’s top doctor says “we’re in a danger zone” when it… Continue reading

Mayor Tara Veer pleads with the premier Tuesday to review the decision to move to a consolidated EMS dispatch system, which will be moved to three centres across the province. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
‘Issue of life and death’: mayors plead with government to halt consolidated EMS dispatch

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer calls on premier to overturn consolidated EMS dispatch decision

A $2.3-billion expansion of Alberta’s natural gas transportation system has been approved. “This should provide significant benefits — and we need every little bit of economic boost we can get,” says Reg Warkentin, policy adviser for the Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce. (Flickr photo)
Red Deer-area to benefit from $2.3 billion gas pipeline expansion project

Project will add 344 km of new pipeline between RMH and Grande Prairie

Dustin Snider was elected the new board president for Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Earl’s Restaurant manager re-elected Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce president

Dustin Snider has been re-elected president of the Red Deer & Distict… Continue reading

Red Deer singer Kayla Williams hopes listeners fed up with the pandemic are comforted by her new song, Stealing from My Youth, which is digitally available for streaming on Friday. (Contributed photo).
Red Deer singer summarizes universal pandemic feelings in a new single

Kayla Williams releases ‘Stealing From My Youth’ on Friday

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw warms up before Game 1 of the baseball World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Kershaw, LA stars shine, Dodgers top Rays 8-3 in WS opener

Kershaw, LA stars shine, Dodgers top Rays 8-3 in WS opener

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford leaps over a challenge by PSG's Presnel Kimpembe during the Champions League group H soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United at the Parc des Princes in Paris, France, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Man United wins again at PSG; Messi scores in Barca rout

Man United wins again at PSG; Messi scores in Barca rout

Hamilton Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis, right, hugs captain Kyle Bekker following their victory in the Canadian Premier League soccer final against the Calgary Cavalry in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. Under Smyrniotis, Forge FC has been the class of the Canadian Premier League. The two-time champions from Hamilton look to mark their internationally this week as they open CONCACAF League play in El Salvador. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis’ influence on Canadian soccer continues to grow

Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis’ influence on Canadian soccer continues to grow

Players' sticks are shown during a World Hockey Championships game in Moscow, Russia on Thursday, May 12, 2016. A senior hockey team in a small city in southern Manitoba has changed its name following a push against the use of Indigenous names and caricatures as mascots. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ivan Sekretarev
Manitoba senior hockey team changes Indigenous name to Bombers

Manitoba senior hockey team changes Indigenous name to Bombers

Jason Kokrak tees off during the final round of the CJ Cup golf tournament at Shadow Creek Golf Course Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in North Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Long drive champ Berkshire looking to compete in tournaments

Long drive champ Berkshire looking to compete in tournaments

The Los Angeles Dodgers line up during during the national anthem and a fly over before Game 1 of the baseball World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Pandemic World Series draws smallest crowd in over century

Pandemic World Series draws smallest crowd in over century

Keegan Messing performs in the Gala at the 2020 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Mississauga, Ont., on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Messing dedicating his Skate America performance to grounded Canadian teammates

Messing dedicating his Skate America performance to grounded Canadian teammates

Most Read