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Businesses ‘decimated’ by plunge in patronage

Along with a plunge in business due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moshe Joseph had to deal with a break-in at his store, Aleph Bet Judaica.

For Moshe Joseph, the call couldn’t have come at a worse time.

It was around 12:20 in the early morning hours of March 24 when the security alarm at his store, Aleph Bet Judaica, went off. Joseph rushed to his shop, located in the heart of Toronto’s Jewish shopping district on Bathurst Street, between Lawrence Avenue West and Wilson Avenue, to find that someone had thrown a rock through the glass front door, got into the store and removed $250 from the till.

That wasn’t the worst of it. The smashed door had to be fixed, but with an insurance deductible of $1,000, he ended up paying for it himself.

Normally, all that could be painful, though tolerable, but these are nowhere near normal times. Since fears of the coronavirus have reached a fever pitch, people are hunkered down at home, waiting for the all-clear so they can resume their normal lives, and that has meant businesses, particularly small businesses like Joseph’s, are suffering, along with the people they employ.

Joseph said business has crashed, dropping 80 per cent from what he could normally expect. And it happened just before Passover, usually his busiest season. One employee decided to leave, afraid to come into contact with other people.

What’s more, in anticipation of his usual Passover trade, Joseph stocked up on Passover items, an expense that is not likely to be recouped. He’s tried offering home delivery service or curbside pickup, but that has produced only modest results.

So, in the face of all that, Joseph is facing a dilemma that is likely to be repeated across the country.

“I will go bankrupt soon,” he said, potentially forced to close the business he started in 1988.

Several Jewish-owned businesses contacted by The CJN told a similar story of sales down dramatically, employees laid off, no money coming in, bills still to be paid and a future outlook that is cloudy at best.

Ehud Telem is the president and CEO of Peerless Travel, a travel service company that has seen its business fall off a cliff.

People are not travelling anymore and, in the last few weeks, all trips through May have been cancelled. Twenty per cent of his business was arranging travel to Israel, while the rest was primarily business travel. But hardly anybody is travelling for business now, Europe is closed off and flights to Israel have been stopped, he said.

“My business is practically zero,” said Telem. “We’re down 97, 98 per cent. If people don’t travel, what revenue can we have?”

As a result, staff has been laid off. There’s still a skeleton crew keeping the office going, and they are taking bookings, but not until July or August. Even those trips are in doubt, he said.

“Our company is healthy and has reserves to survive a long shutdown. Other companies, I don’t know.”

The kosher catering industry has seen business drop as well. One caterer who preferred to remain anonymous called the situation, “brutal, just brutal. The entire event industry has stopped, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs have been cancelled or postponed.

“Everything is coming to a halt.”

“We’ve had events cancelled the day before (they were scheduled to take place),” including one for more than 100 people, said the caterer. In that case, the food, which had already been prepared, was donated to a food bank.

With business plummeting, he’s had to lay off about 15 employees from his kosher division – everybody but the executive chef.

A lot of catering companies are hurting, but it’s not just them. “I think every business in the hospitality industry is in danger of folding,” the caterer said, referencing hotels, restaurants and banquet halls. “There’s nothing going on. Zero.”

The caterer would like to see more assistance from government and he encourages the public to step up to the plate.

“People should try to support their local businesses so they can survive,” he said.

One businessman in the food industry, who also prefers to remain anonymous, said business is down 80 per cent at his kosher restaurant.

It all started about 10 days ago, when “people started to get scared,” he said.

At first, he cut back on staffing hours, then on the hours the restaurant stayed open.

The restaurant is still open for business, offering delivery service, but he’s now had to lay off a worker and cut other employees’ hours in half.

The restaurateur believes “more than a few businesses could go bust. If you were a struggling business, you won’t come out of this. If you were a healthy business, you may not come out of this either.”

He’d like to see more aggressive government action to help business and he’s calling on members of the community to do what they can to support their local businesses, as well.

“If everybody does their part, we’ll be OK.”

Dr. Ari Gold is an endodontist with two offices in Toronto. At one point, acting on recommendations from the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario to postpone all non-emergency procedures, he closed his offices and laid off staff, eight people in all, along with three associates.

But the closure put him in what he describes as “a pickle.”

“I am an endodontist. I treat people in pain,” he said.

The night he received the advisory, he didn’t sleep at all, torn between the need for social distancing, keeping his staff safe and “the moral obligation” to help people who are suffering from dental issues.

He decided to reopen part-time, with one secretary and one dental assistant, to receive cases. He has all the recommended personal protective equipment, like masks and face shields, and the office screens patients in advance against signs of the virus.

Unlike other small businesses, Gold’s clinic, Metro Endodontics, is in no danger of going out of business, but it hasn’t been easy on him.

“I’m taking a hit financially. I have rent to pay, service contracts on equipment, bills that have to be paid and no revenue coming in. I’m trying to minimize the damage,” he said.

“The general feeling in our little world is that the prudent thing to do is to lay off our staff.”

Joe Elmaleh, vice-president of PR Creative Caterers, recalls the incident that signalled to him a change had been brought on by concerns over the coronavirus. It was 1:30 in the afternoon on March 5 when he got the call that an event for 150 people that night was being cancelled.

In the next week, “we were inundated with cancellations for the month of March, April and through to the end of May,” including events from 100 people to 2,500 guests.

“Everybody is hurting,” Elmaleh said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘decimated,’ but we have been completely and totally decimated in our events.”

“Everybody’s situation is horrible,” he said.

Passover is a busy time for the company, usually with 500 to 600 orders to cater family seders, mock seders and other large events. The company considered all manner of precautions to ensure the safety of clients and staff, but “regrettably, last Thursday we cancelled Passover production,” Elmaleh said.

Uncertainty over possible government orders to shut down at the last minute, coupled with concerns for employees, who’d be working in close proximity to each other, led to the decision, Elmaleh said.

As a result, almost “every person has been laid off … until the end of May,” though a skeleton staff remains to produce some items sold in Sobeys.

“It’s a very scary world out there,” Elmaleh said.

“We have employees who cried when we laid them off. It’s very sad. Some people don’t know if they’ll be able to survive because of these layoffs, the shortage of work. It’s very sad.”