TORONTO – Canadian officials expressed optimism Friday that the World Health Organization will rescind its SARS travel warning for Toronto as soon as next week, as three more people died and economic damage continued to mount.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in his first public comments since the travel advisory was issued Wednesday, said he spoke Friday morning to WHO (search) head Gro Harlem Brundtland and she agreed to review the situation next week.
The facts Canada will provide should get the travel warning lifted, said the provincial commissioner of public health, Dr. Colin D'Cunha (search). "My sense is they've listened to some of the things that people have said in Canada."
Ontario Premier Ernie Eves said the review would take place Tuesday and he expected an immediate decision.
Toronto is the epicenter of the biggest outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome outside of Asia, where it originated. SARS (search) was first felt by Toronto's 400,000-strong Chinese community -- the biggest in North America -- with restaurants and shopping malls reporting business down by 70 percent.
Despite the warning on travel, a crowd of 16,417, the largest since opening day, turned out at SkyDome Friday night for the Toronto Blue Jays Kansas City Royals game. Some fans were shown on the park's video board holding up a sign reading "What SARS?" The Blue Jays won 6-5.
More than 250 probable or suspected cases have been reported in the Toronto area, with 19 deaths so far and about half the cases making a full recovery. The disease has killed 110 people in mainland China and 109 in Hong Kong.
The three latest deaths were announced Friday -- a 44-year-old man who died Thursday night,and two women, aged 69 and 64, who died Friday. The man was the first Canadian fatality from the illness without any known underlying health problem.
Chretien said the federal government would contribute $6.8 million for a $17 million marketing campaign to reassure the world that Toronto and all of Canada remains a safe and enjoyable tourist destination.
"We all believe that the World Health Organization came to the wrong conclusion," Chretien said. "We believe that Toronto is a good place to visit and it is a safe place."
To show Toronto is safe, Chretien said his Cabinet will meet in the city next week instead of Ottawa, the capital.
But business owners said the warning already has hurt them.
Conferences scheduled for the city were canceled or postponed Friday, including a Canadian Cable Television Association meeting of 500 people scheduled to begin Sunday.
Placer Dome Inc., Canada's second-biggest gold producer, said its Vancouver-based senior executives would participate in next week's annual shareholder meeting in Toronto by videoconference instead of traveling to the city.
A bus tour operator with daily trips from Toronto to Niagara Falls and airport charters for local hotels said business is "going down the tubes."
"There's nothing going to Niagara -- it's finished. That business is down 100 percent," said Lorenzo Durso of Swiftrans Services Ltd.
British travelers had canceled tours worth more than $68,000 through his Cross Canada Travel business. He laid off 10 workers Friday, and "many more" will have to go, Durso said.
Even Major League Baseball expressed concern. Players were advised to avoid close crowds and perhaps use their own pens to sign autographs, though Friday's game between the Blue Jays and visiting Kansas City Royals would proceed.
Canadian officials complained the WHO warning, which came more than a month after the illness first appeared in the city, was based on outdated information, and that recent figures show few new cases.
A WHO official said the agency's concern was sick travelers from Toronto or elsewhere possibly bringing SARS to the developing world.
"We really don't have the luxury of saying let's wait and see what it does," said spokesman David Heymann. "We have to do all we can now as a world community to try to stop this disease while it might be feasible. Because in six months, it may not be."
Dr. Paul Gully, a federal health official, indicated Canada would tighten airport screening of passengers to detect possible SARS sufferers, possibly with fever-detecting equipment.
Britain, France, Ireland, Australia and Jamaica have also issued warnings similar to the WHO advisory because of SARS.
Toronto, a city of 3 million people, accounts for about a fifth of Canada's total economic activity. Merchants generally are reporting business is down -- particularly among American tourists who come by bus, car and plane.
Jim Flaherty, the Ontario enterprise minister, predicted "serious economic harm in the hotel and convention business," a mainstay of the Toronto economy.
Mayor Mel Lastman said he intended to ask banks to allow deferred payments on loans and mortgages, after previously asking businesses to try to keep employees on their payrolls.