It’s normally one of the busiest nights in Toronto, drawing thousands to the streets for a night of live art installations and last call at bars being pushed to 4 a.m.
Not this year. Nuit Blanche 2020 is unlike any other weekend in its 14-year history. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, the programming has moved online, leaving the streets eerily emptier.
The event has generated over $443 million in economic impact for Toronto, according to the city – that’s an average of over $31.6 million a year benefiting businesses across the city that depend heavily on the foot traffic that the event garners.
But with coronavirus case numbers rising, restrictions on the hospitality sector are rolling back many of those benefits, threatening the very survival of the city’s vibrant nightlife.
Bars, clubs and restaurants are now required to stop serving alcohol at 11pm, patron numbers are restricted, parties and public gatherings have been significantly reduced or cancelled.
CityNews journalists dug deeper into the impact that COVID-19 has wrought on a sector that the city depends on.
TORONTO’S NIGHTLIFE ECONOMY
Ginger Robertson co-owns the Edmund Burke on the Danforth – an industry bar where staff at other restaurants tend to grab a drink after work.
“Initially we were furious, obviously. Between 11 and 2 is when we make most of our money,” said Robertson. “There’s a bar like that on every strip. There’s a couple along here and we’re one of them and it was devastating because we were literally just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Last year, city councillor Michael Thompson was appointed as the city’s “night economy ambassador” – in other words, Toronto’s nightlife mayor. He says he understands the frustration, but the decisions are based on what’s best for public health.
“The restrictions that have been put in place by the medical officer of health have been formed by research, have been formed by a better understanding of the pandemic,” said Thompson. “It will take us a while to get back to where we were, but I do think that the resiliency of the people in this city, it will advance itself beyond simply what it was before. We’re going to make sure of it.”
Thompson says in terms of financial assistance, the city does not have the capacity to offer loans and similar programs, but that Mayor John Tory has been advocating fiercely for help from the provincial and federal governments.
BARS & CLUBS SUFFERING FROM EARLY CLOSURES
The new measures have proven to be an extra challenge for the new business owner of a Toronto lounge. Personal injury lawyer by day, Jasmine Daya decided to purchase Pravda Vodka Bar because she didn’t want to see it shut down. The former owner had closed the establishment for over five months due to the pandemic before Daya took it over in September.
“I have so much love for this city and the nightlife it has to offer and I don’t believe that COVID is forever. I believe it will pass and l want to ensure Pravda survives,” Daya says.
After instituting a number of changes to fit physical distancing requirements, business had started to slowly pick up with unique offerings like acrobats, a fire show and belly dancers. But three weeks in there’s already been a change for the worse.
“You have city officials telling people maybe not to go out, only go out for essential trips,” Daya says. “There are a few mixed messages. They’re saying they’re not closing businesses (but) at the same time they’re saying maybe don’t go to these businesses.”
“I remain hopeful this will be brief and we can come back stronger than ever.”
STRIP CLUB CLOSURES LEAVE SEX WORKERS VULNERABLE
The local sex industry has also been impacted by the pandemic. Strip Clubs have been forced to close twice in the last seven months because of concerns over the risk of spreading COVID. But those in the sex industry say they feel unfairly targeted by government officials and without the supports many other industries are receiving, these workers are being left in a dire financial situation.
“Our position at Maggie’s is strip clubs need to close down. Just as bars, restaurants and casinos need to be shut down,” says Ellie Ade Kur, a member of the board of directors for Maggie’s Toronto, a Sex Workers Action Project based in Toronto.
“Two blocks away from the Brass Rail – El Furniture Warehouse, a restaurant, exposed 1,700 people to COVID-19. That’s a greater exposure rate than every single strip club in the city of Toronto combined.”
While some workers were covered under the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit others were not. The pandemic has also highlighted issues sex workers face – many afraid to access government help due to stigma along with fewer avenues for support.
Maggie’s Toronto has fundraised over $130,000 to help provide support to those left without work in the sex industry.
CHURCH-WELLESLEY OUTBREAKS IMPACTING LGBTQ COMMUNITY
It will also be a much quieter scene in the Church and Wellesley village Saturday night, on what would be one of the busiest weekends of the year for restaurants and bars. Last month at least four bars in the village closed their doors temporarily, following reports of confirmed coronavirus cases among drag performers and customers. Some have not reopened, while others such as Woody’s, are resuming business tonight. The village has been hit hard in the pandemic with the Church street BIA estimating about a fifth of the hospitality industry being lost since March.
Meantime, a big night down by the lake as a socially distanced drag show is taking centre stage once again this evening featuring drag queens from a popular reality TV competition show. Tonight’s event is still forging ahead, despite at least two members of the cast being forced to self-isolate because of COVID-19. The show’s host, Brooklyn Heights, confirmed last week she would be absent after testing positive for the virus while another cast member, Priyanka, is isolating after coming into close contact with two people who have also been infected.
NUIT BLANCHE 2020
The 15th annual Toronto installment of Nuit Blanche has the theme “The Space Between Us,” with a focus “on the connections across urban, polar and pacific landscapes.”
It will include a 12-hour livestream of screen-based artworks, as well as soundscapes provided by several DJs.
Participants will also have access to the 14-year Nuit Blanche Toronto archive of more than 1,600 art projects as well as new content from alumni artists and curators.
The programming this year including talks, podcasts, archives, live streams and elements of augmented and virtual reality.
Erica Natividad, Melissa Nakhavoly, Maleeha Shiekh and Quintin Bignell all contributed to this story