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The signs are aimed to maintain a human connection between local businesses and the community
As storefronts close amid COVID-19, business owners are finding creative ways to use signage to connect with their communities.
Many businesses have made the difficult decision to close their doors to the public, doing their part to enforce social distancing measures to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The sight of covered front of house windows, shut tight with a sign on the door, has become the new normal in neighbourhoods across Toronto. It’s especially seen in those that are sprawling with small-to-medium sized businesses, where the broad array of messages offering words of hope, appreciation and love are frequent.
“We wanted to post a sign in solidarity, with the government and with the health-care workers. And let people know we think this is the responsible thing to do, it’s the right thing to do,” said Alex Wallen, a co-owner of Sugo, an Italian-American restaurant on Bloor and Lansdowne.
On a normal night, Sugo would be jam-packed with people, every table laden with bowls of pasta and a line of customers going out the door. Since the staff decided to completely close the restaurant on March 16, Sugo is shut tight. The windows are covered with brown paper with a message taped out front. It explains what we now know about COVID-19 — that social distancing is the way the public can reduce the harm of the virus. Their message also contained a human element, something we all are craving: “We will get through this TORONTO!!!! The Sugo team loves you all and thanks you for your constant support. We are not going anywhere.”
The sign, and hundreds more like it scattered throughout the city, is a small act of community-building during a time when it seems as though communities are dismantling. “That gives you hope walking down the street. If you just put up a closed sign, that is apocalyptic,” said Wallen. “It’s a sense of security for yourself, too, that we are going to open again. This is not defeat.”
Although not all closed establishments have the same financial capabilities, Sugo has been able to donate all the food that could not be stored to local food banks and churches. Alongside Wallen, co-owners Conor Joerin and Scott Pennock have been operating a fundraising initiative to provide health-care workers with meals.
In Parkdale, Jeremy Kesten runs the Park Agency Print Shop, which has been open since 2016. The graphics on Park Agency’s sign are slightly more advanced, a professionally printed poster showing a marquee displaying safety tips, such as the need to social distance, clean surfaces and wash our hands.
“How do you let your customers know you’re still a safe space to be? That you support the community during a tough time?” says Kesten.
The confusion felt by independently owned retail stores while they were able to remain open was abundant. Kesten decided to close his shop on March 15, a few days before other businesses followed suit. Park Agency is still able to operate through its online store, but even after learning his shop is considered essential (they supply office products and services), the brick-and-mortar store will remain closed. “Everyone is in the same boat, we’re all in this together,” said Kesten.
Ryerson communications professor Richard McMaster commented on how social distancing has caused a drastic amount of our lives to move to a digital space. Yet it is also a reminder that we are all embedded in our environments; the signs are artifacts made to interpret our cultural predicament. “Communication scholars talk about using communication as a form of ritual, as a form of bonding, as a means of creating connections, our empathy and identity between people,” said McMaster.
These signs remind the public that there are real people behind businesses, who are attempting to maintain a human connection with a community that feels like it’s crumbling. With an uncertain future looming, these small gestures of solidarity serve as a new social code. They offer a bridge between being safe and being human.