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Once-prosperous Scarborough stretch with tight-knit community vibe finds itself ‘in

Long stretches of Lawrence Avenue East in Scarborough from Kennedy Road to Morningside Avenue are dotted with small mom and pop shops. There are restaurants and clothing shops, service businesses and convenience stores. In many cases, these businesses are the primary source of income for the families who own them and do most — if not all — of the work to keep them up and running.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, these strips of small businesses were bustling with movement. People coming and going, shopping and gathering to hang out. These days, however, foot traffic is noticeably less. Parking lots in front of the shops are half full, in some cases even less, especially now that eateries have stopped their indoor dining services amid the province’s modified Stage 2 restrictions and are relying on online orders and curbside pickups.

The Star recently toured the area and spoke with business owners and managers about how COVID-19 has impacted their businesses.

Merline Forrester, owner, Sunset Caribbean (takeout & catering)

A woman comes through the door and hands a bouquet of flowers to Merline Forrester’s son over the counter. She’s not buying anything from the diner, which is well known for its smoked jerk chicken and curry goat dishes. She’s just stopping by to say hi.

Merline Forrester, owner of Sunset Caribbean, gets flowers from a grateful customer.

It’s this kind of community vibe that made Forrester open the restaurant at the southwest corner of Lawrence Avenue East and Scarborough Golf Club Road in the east part ofScarborough six years ago. While she says the business still hasn’t taken off the way she expected, the pandemic has made matters much worse.

“I am concerned that the struggles we are facing now can force me to shut down,” Forrester said. “The orders have gone down significantly because I guess people are just at home and cooking for themselves more.”

With expenses on rent and other utility bills adding up, Forrester says she and her son have to run the entire business on their own as the revenues are not enough to hire someone else for extra help.

Taruna Sharan, owner, PhysioMount Rehab Centre

When she opened her clinic for physiotherapy services earlier this year near Lawrence Avenue East and Scarborough Golf Club Road, Taruna Sharan was looking forward to serving people with various physical disabilities or those with various injuries in the community. But safety restrictions in place due to the pandemic have meant that her business is “just in survival mode.”

“It’s been very slow for us. There’s no way we can make a profit right now,” she said. The clinic can only receive one patient at a time, unlike before the pandemic when multiple professionals could treat many patients simultaneously.

The ongoing dilemma for Sharan is whether to keep working within the limited capacity or completely shut down. When the clinic reopened after the lockdown back in May, there was “an influx of patients” who came rushing in, desperate for the services, she said.

“Many of them could not go to the hospital because it wasn’t an emergency, but their conditions were getting worse because of staying at home,” she said. “It’s a big mismatch in the system, and it brings a lot of stress for the patients and for us.”

Marzena Kozio, manager, Polka European Deli Inc.

In the early days of the pandemic, lineups at the Polka European Deli near Lawrence Avenue East and Markham Road would stretch around other shops nearby as people sought to stock up on various European delicacies. The demand has now dissipated and business has become “very slow,” says store manager Marzena Kozio, who has worked at the location for more than 20 years.

“It’s a very scary situation. I have seen so many other businesses completely shut down,” she said.

“Thank God I still have a job, but who knows what is going to happen next?”

Kozio says many of their customers have been shopping at the store for many years and know when to expect fresh stock, which makes some days less busy than others.

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“Hopefully things will get better soon,” she said.

Steve Siddik, manager, Healthy Planet

The Lawrence Avenue East and Markham Road location of Healthy Planet has seen a huge business spike during the pandemic. The store sells nutrition products and vitamin supplements among other things.

Manager Steve Siddik, who has worked with the shop for more than 15 years, says they’ve registered between a 30- to 40-per-cent increase in sales and customers since March.

“We’ve been on the good side of this whole thing,” he said.

“We are an essential service provider with our natural health groceries and supplements and immunity-boosting products such as vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc, so I think people have been looking for those options for a better life during the pandemic.”

Even during the lockdown days, it was “business as usual” for the shop, with home delivery services and shortened hours for in-store shopping. Since the pandemic started Siddik has hired five additional staff members to help meet the demands, he said.

Abhishek Vemuri, manager, The Biryani Walla

When the Indian eatery near Kennedy Road and Lawrence Avenue East opened in January, it offered both dine-in and takeout options. However, since the first lockdown in March, it has moved to takeout and catering only. Manager Abhishek Vemuri said they have seen a decline of about 40 per cent in sales.

“It was much slower initially, but people have started getting used to ordering food online,” he said. “Things are getting a little better now, but we are still struggling to keep the business afloat.”

The big concern, Vemuri said, is the ongoing second wave with cases continuing to increase. He notes that it would be difficult for the business to survive on takeout only in the long term.

“It would destroy everything for us, after we had tried hard to stay open under difficult circumstances.”

Thushi Jey, manager, Burger St.

Inside the locally famous Thai and Malaysian cuisine eatery near Morningside Avenue and Lawrence Avenue East, chairs are flipped up over about a half dozen tables where customers used to sit and munch on their burgers and fries before COVID-19 shut things down.

Today, the place is only open for takeout and delivery services. Manager Thushi Jey estimates food sales are at 50 per cent or less compared to before the pandemic.

“We didn’t want to close down completely, but I’m not sure if we can continue like this either,” she said. The cost of rent and utility bills can add up and “make it near impossible” to continue operating at half capacity, she said.

Jey, whose two young kids attend elementary school in Scarborough, said she’s worried about her job security in case the owners decide to shut down completely if there’s not enough profit.

“People are scared to go out, the (COVID-19 case) numbers keep going up,” she said, referring to the second wave. “Businesses are suffering so much.”

Gilbert Ngabo

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