COVID crisis has decimated some local sectors, others surviving, task force reports

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Windsor Star/Dave Battagello


Windsor’s hospitality and retail sectors have been nearly wiped out, while the trucking and tool sectors appear to be surviving with near-normal operations, according to an update provided Friday by a local COVID-19 economic task force.

“Tourism and hospitality was hit first and the hardest,” said Gordon Orr, CEO for Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island and task force member. “The majority of businesses are closed except a few with a skeleton staff.”

The task force which represents an array of eight local sectors in the business, manufacturing and agriculture sectors was assembled by the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation to help navigate shutdowns through the pandemic crisis and establish a path back to the “new normal” whenever stay-at-home rules are relaxed.

Through an online group update organized by Mayor Drew Dilkens, each sector reported on its current status and concerns.

Orr offered by far the grimmest snapshot based on a survey of 161 owners in the hospitality sector. He reported that 66 per cent of businesses are fully closed, with 22 per cent shuttered permanently.

Three large hotels in the city have shut down for business temporarily. Seven are still in operation but only have single-digit occupancy rates. Work by Farhi Holdings on a new Doubletree hotel on Riverside Drive West has been halted indefinitely.

The pandemic has resulted in overall hotel occupancy rates being down 26.5 per cent so far in 2020 compared to this time one year ago.

The local hospitality industry is predicting there will be no rebound back to near-normal business levels until 2022, Orr said.

“There are going to be extensive protocols for sanitation and cleaning rooms which will be expensive,” he said. “You have housekeepers refusing to work, so hiring enough staff will be a challenge.”

Local wineries and craft breweries are also being hit hard and trying to survive the pandemic through online sales and home delivery.

All local festivals and events have issued cancellations well into July and August, said Orr who encouraged area residents to continue placing pickup and delivery orders or purchasing gift cards to help hospitality businesses survive.

A bleak picture was also painted of the small business and retail sectors by task force member Rakesh Naidu, CEO of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Based on surveys, there have been about 20,000 employees in the sector who’ve either been laid off or had their hours reduced, he said.

Among small- or medium-sized businesses, 22 per cent said they are unlikely to bring any of those employees back to work when the pandemic crisis ends.

“That’s a significant number who will not be able to get their jobs back,” Naidu said.

The chamber is among those lobbying for increased provincial and federal government support for business owners in the sector “so they can continue operations and keep the lights on,” despite a number of grants and loans already being available, he said.

“More needs to be done,” Naidu said. “The big concern most have is how they will be able to sustain themselves or repay their debts because they are piling up fast.”

On the positive side, the local trucking and logistics sectors have been able to keep goods moving, thanks largely to customs officers on both sides of the border, said Susan Anzolin, executive director of the Institute for Border Logistics and Security.

The area’s trucking industry on average is operating at 79 per cent of its normal capacity — at the high end for groceries and lower end for retail goods, she said.

“It’s a huge accomplishment given how most of the world is closed,” Anzolin said.

Employees with the local tool and mold sector initially took a huge hit with over 2,600 temporary layoffs issued at the peak a couple of weeks ago, according to Shelley Fellows, chairwoman for Automate Canada and task force member.

But a large majority of those workers have since returned to their jobs with only a couple hundred layoffs at most remaining, she said.

The agriculture sector was able to avert a huge disaster recently when the issue of foreign temporary workers was ironed out at the federal government level and those workers have slowly been arriving in Essex County.

Each is being quarantined for a couple of weeks before starting on the job, but they are here, reported Stephen MacKenzie, the development corporation’s CEO and task force chairman.

The task force update video is available for viewing online on the city’s website at