Toronto is entering “a new phase of the pandemic” and the day is now “fast approaching” when the city will be able to welcome back tens of thousands of workers to its downtown core, Mayor John Tory says.

The city’s downtown office towers have been mostly empty since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020 but with case counts plummeting and vaccination rates steadily rising there is increasing optimism that many workers will soon return to the office, providing a much needed financial boost to the wider downtown economy in the process.

On Wednesday Tory was on hand for a press conference at Nathan Phillips Square as the city and the Toronto Region Board of Trade launched a new campaign called ‘We’re Ready Toronto,’ which will be focussed on ensuring that businesses will be in a position to welcome back workers and customers in large numbers as soon as it safe to do so.

As part of the campaign, businesses will be able to access reopening playbooks with strategies on managing elevator capacity and reducing crowding through the staggering of workhours. Small and medium-sized businesses will also be given access to free COVID-19 screening kits.

“We're looking at the downtown as a living organism with hundreds of thousands of people that come in every day and we want those people to come back, frankly a lot of their employers want them to come back and from my conversations with many, many people, the people who work downtown want to come back,” Tory said. “It is special to work downtown. It's not just special because you're here with your colleagues and you're able to go down in the hall and get some advice from somebody or have lunch with somebody but it is special because there is a sense of action and vibrancy that comes from being in the downtown of the economic engine of this country and being in the heart of the biggest city in the country.”

Approximately 550,000 workers commuted downtown prior to the pandemic but a widespread shift to remote work has had many of them working from home for the past 15 months.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Toronto Region Board of Trade President and CEO Janet De Silva said that while some of those workers could be assigned to a “hybrid model” in the fall in which they continue to work from home part-time her feeling from talking to large employers is that the shift won’t be permanent.

For that reason, she said that planning needs to be underway now on how to accommodate the return of workers, whether that relates to building-specific issues like managing capacity in pinch points like elevators or food courts or things like ensuring safety on the TTC once ridership increases again.

“The building owners and large employers who've been working with us are indicating that well a full five-day return to work may not be immediate, it is likely to happen over the longer term,” she said. “There will be some instances of a hybrid model but for the most part there's a big pent up demand on the part of workers to get back into those jobs and into the offices in the downtown core.”

The “playbooks” released by the board of trade make dozens of recommendations on how to accommodate the return of employees, depending on the workplace.

For example the 61-page document for businesses in the city’s Financial District recommends staggering work start and end times, making reference to a policy in Singapore where up to 50 per cent of employees begin their day after 10 a.m.

De Villa, however, said that the campaign is about more than just “preventing another lockdown” through infection prevention and control measures.

She said that the intent of the campaign is to “help remind people about the joy of experiencing downtown” while helping downtown businesses prepare for the return of workers.

She said that similar campaigns are also in the works for employment areas in Scarborough and around Pearson International Airport.

“If We're Ready Toronto has its intended impact, and I know it will here's what's going to happen when the time is right: People are going to get back to the in-person work interactions they've been craving feeling more engaged and productive on the job, customers are going to go back to enjoying their favorite restaurants, salons, shops and patios and eventually music and entertainment venues, returning countless jobs to those sectors and protecting those businesses and visitors are going to return, along with the more than $11 billion in economic activity they genuinely generate annually,” she promised.