- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

TORONTO Canada's federal Cabinet will meet here tomorrow to grapple with the health emergency and economic crisis caused by the SARS virus outbreak that has claimed 21 lives.
The Liberal government's decision to move the weekly event from its traditional venue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is meant to send the world a message that Toronto is safe despite the World Health Organization's unfavorable travel advisory.
"I'll be staying in a Toronto hotel Monday night, and I will sleep very, very, very well," Prime Minister Jean Chretien said after announcing that his government will contribute $10 million to help the city repair an image harmed by the appearance of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
But many business travelers don't think visiting Toronto is worth the gamble.
The Global Interactive Gaming Summit and Expo says it will probably move its convention next month to another city because of the outbreak, and concerns expressed by delegates.
"I know most people in our business are risk-takers," one man from Sweden wrote organizers. "But when it comes to gambling with your own life, then it is another ballgame."
Dozens of high-profile meetings were canceled even before the WHO warning. But in its wake, businesses and some big-name entertainers have balked.
Singers Elton John and Billy Joel were to perform here tonight but called their concert off, dealing yet another blow to Toronto's hotels.
With tourists shunning the city, many hotels are reporting occupancy rates of just 30 percent to 40 percent. Some have been forced to limit workers' hours or lay them off altogether.
Stores aren't seeing the droves of springtime shoppers they expected. Sales in the area near the hospital at the center of the SARS outbreak are down by as much as 50 percent.
Chinese restaurants also have seen traffic dwindle because diners fear the SARS-Hong Kong connection, though authorities have tried to reassure patrons that the virus can only be contracted from someone who has traveled to China or visited a local hospital treating SARS patients.
In Washington, a top health official said yesterday that an effective vaccine to combat the SARS virus is at least one year away.
"I think our strategy right now is, let's work really hard to contain this until we have better tools like a vaccine or a drug treatment, but we're at least a year away from any kind of vaccine that would be useful in people," Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CBS television.
Health costs aside, economists at the Toronto Dominion Bank Financial Group predict the crisis could cost Canada's economy up to $2.1 billion in lost growth this year. Even the country's central bank has taken note and warns SARS will hurt the country's prosperity.
"This is worse than 9/11 after that we had an incredible loss of business," said Bruce MacMillan, president and chief executive officer of Tourism Toronto.
"We have to get the truth out there and tell the rest of the world there are people out on the streets and they don't have masks on their faces."


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