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Toronto golf scene looks to move past SARS panic

John GordonJohn Gordon,

TORONTO - The World Health Organization has lifted its warning against nonessential travel to Toronto, saying it is satisfied with measures to stop the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

No new cases have been reported in the Greater Toronto Area for 22 days, more than double the incubation period for the disease. As of Thursday, 23 people had died and there were 79 active cases, down six from Wednesday.

While some golf insiders say the industry may avoid the brunt of any fallout from the SARS scare because the golf season in most of the country is barely underway, others are already reeling from its effects.

"We haven't seen or heard anything negative from our members at thispoint," Nathalie Lavallee, communications director for the National GolfCourse Owners' Association of Canada, said Wednesday.

But Charles Lorimer said Thursday that SARS "has affected our business quite drastically." Lorimer is vice-president of sales and marketing forClubLink Corp., Canada's largest golf course owner, operator anddeveloper. Among ClubLink's holdings are golf resorts such as RockyCrest, The Lake Joseph Club and Grandview, all at least 100 miles northof Toronto, but it also owns several high-profile courses closer to Toronto.

"The most recognizable label for anyone who might be coming to Torontofor a convention, for example, would be Glen Abbey [a ClubLink property15 miles west of Toronto, and a frequent site of the Bell CanadianOpen]," said Lorimer, who also sits on the board of the Canadian GolfTourism Alliance. "This has hurt us tremendously there, with about sevengroups of 40 or more that have either postponed or canceled, becausetheir conference or convention was postponed or canceled."

However, at least one province showed increased tourist interest despiteSARS and an uncertain economy. Prince Edward Island, on Canada'sAtlantic Coast, said calls to the province's information center were upslightly in April and requests for information kits increased 19 percent over March. "We remain cautiously optimistic for a good summerseason," said Chris Jones, director of policy planning and research forTourism P.E.I.

WHO stunned Canada when it issued the Toronto travel advisory on April23, giving the rest of the world an impression of a city under siege,where gaunt-faced residents scurry down near-empty streets, facescovered with medical masks. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A visit to Toronto, whether it's downtown, to Pearson InternationalAirport, to any golf course, reflects more caution regarding handwashingand personal contact, but little else. Life goes on, more or less perusual. Airport authorities in Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia,will be implementing fever testing with thermal-imaging sensors, butthere are few other signs of anything unusual.

Said Jim Lee, director of the Canadian Golf Tourism Alliance, "While SARS isof obvious concern on a world-wide basis, realistically the chances ofanyone coming in contact with the virus is very small while on a golf tripto Canada. However, people have a right to be concerned about travel to theToronto area, but the recent lifting of the WHO traveladvisory should help alleviate any concerns about travel to the Toronto area."

It should be emphasized in Ontario's case that all cases were limited tothe Greater Toronto Area, and those who died were either elderly oralready seriously medically compromised. Toronto-area health officialsemphasized that all cases of the disease, which is not airborne butcommunicated solely through droplet contact with an infected person,could be traced back to the original cluster of infectors.

Agencies ranging from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Health Canada have labeled WHO's travel advisory unscientific and unnecessary. That, combined with Tuesday's rescinding of the advisory, was small consolation for Canada's largest city,devastated not so much by disease but by bad, frequently misleading, publicity.

The cost of SARS, stemming from both real causes and from media-driven sensationalism, will be staggering. In Toronto's case, it may top$2.1-billion (Cdn), according to the Toronto Dominion Bank. Hundreds ofworkers in the hospitality industry have been laid off as a result. The lost economic activity amounts to between one and 1.5 percentage points of the country's gross domestic profit. Impacts range from canceled conventions and sporting events to a drop in hotel and restaurant business, estimated as high as 80 per cent.

In governmental efforts to demonstrate to the world just how overblown the SARS threat is in Canada, Prime Minister Jean Chretien took his cabinet from the nation's capital of Ottawa to Toronto on Tuesday for arare out-of-town meeting, and Health Canada issued an unprecedented advisory telling Canadians it is safe to visit Toronto.

Chretien said the economic tidal wave would be felt across the country."If you go to Europe, you see that people think that Vancouver [on thePacific coast] is a suburb of Toronto. They don't know that you could fit Europe between Vancouver and Toronto."

Both public and private sectors have announced or proposed measures aimed at attracting tourists this summer. These include waiving hotel taxes, dinner-theater-baseball-hotel packages at reduced prices from Toronto's top producers, and a multi million-dollar marketing campaign.

As concerns eased in some areas of the world over the status of SARS,health officials in many areas began advising the public to take precautions against the West Nile Virus, a much less potent problem andone with which health officials are familiar.

Last week, a dead crow found just north of Toronto tested positive for signs of the virus which is carried by mosquitoes and can infect not only mosquitoes, birds and humans, but horses and some other mammals as well.

Crows are the earliest indicators of the presence of West Nile Virus,which was first discovered in Uganda in 1937 and now is found throughout most of the world's temperate zones (between latitudes 23.5 degrees and66.5 degrees north and south).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says less than oneper cent of persons infected with the virus will develop severe illness and of those, fatality rates range between three and 15 per cent, andare highest among the elderly. No vaccine exists. Symptoms are usually mild and may include fever, headache, body aches, skin rash and swollen lymph nodes. Severe infection can be marked by headache, high fever,neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, and paralysis.

Much like SARS, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions which compromise their health are most at risk, and could develop fatal encephalitis. Once infected, symptoms or not, you're thought to be immune for life. So eventually, West Nile Virus outbreaks should become rare.

The virus caused 274 deaths in the United States in 2002-2003 and 12 in Canada.

Although the chances of contracting West Nile Virus are low, and the odds of becoming seriously ill or dying are remote, standard precautions when golfing or enjoying other outdoor activities include wearing light-colored pants and long-sleeved shirts, shoes and socks, and using an appropriate insect repellent that contains DEET.

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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