Here’s How Durham Region BIAs are Responding to COVID-19

Katherine Ryalen

Our local businesses are getting a helping hand from their BIAs. We shine the spotlight on them to show what they are doing for their downtowns.

Now more than ever, we are all in need of a helping hand. This is especially true for our local businesses, who find themselves operating under a reduced capacity due to the health and safety measures needed to combat the spread of COVID-19. Our downtown shops and businesses are doing everything they can to keep their customers and their communities safe, and it’s wonderful to see their efforts being matched by their Business Improvement Associations.

It is a heartening example of community spirit to see how our BIAs have gone above and beyond to support their businesses.  Our downtown districts are at the heart of who we are in Durham. Here are just three of our many BIAs who are doing remarkable things for their businesses and their communities. 

New COVID-19 Concerns

[Note: As of Monday, November 23rd, Durham Region moves into Red Zone for COVID-19 restrictions. Before you visit any of the events below, please check online to ensure they are still being held.]


Pivot. Along with social distancing and flatten the curve, pivot is one of the most prevalent buzzwords of 2020, and we all understand why. Our BIAs have had to pivot their programs and operations, altering how they promote and support their businesses—and they had to do it fast. “We all had to regroup and redeploy, and figure out what our businesses really needed,” says Karey Anne Large, Executive Director of the Downtown Whitby BIA.

In response to this sudden need, Karey and her team have done several notable things. First, they engaged a company called FanSaves to roll out a gift certificate program. “That was well-received,” she says. “I believe there was about $1,500 in gift certificates that were purchased for Downtown Whitby businesses.” Next, they launched a passport-based curbside takeout challenge. Participants with passports were encouraged to visit their favourite restaurants, learn about the location’s history, try new eateries, and enter a draw for a prize. To fund this program, the BIA launched an apparel collection of hoodies and tee-shirts depicting historic Downtown Whitby.

Finally, the Downtown Whitby BIA put together a COVID-19 reopening kit for its businesses to assist with health and safety measures. Items like hand sanitizer, floor decals, masks, and social distancing signage were given free of charge. “It was something to help them so that they didn’t have to absorb that cost as well,” Karey explains. “It’s already such a trying time for everyone. It was the least we could do.”

Where in typical years the Downtown Whitby BIA has held large events to draw thousands of people, finding new and creative ways in 2020 to highlight its businesses has been crucial to the vitality of the downtown core. Many of our BIAs, including Whitby, have been actively involved in digitalization and helping businesses transition to an online world, as well as being involved in lots of different “Shop Local” events.

The uptake by the public has been phenomenal, with significant traction happening on social media. “People are retweeting and showing pictures of themselves at restaurants with their passports,” Karey says. “It’s interesting to see the shift. I mean, there was always a great shop local vibe, but it’s really amplified now with COVID.”

Of course, COVID-19 has been an unwelcome force of nature that has caused significant disruption to our communities. But though some businesses have sadly had to shut down, many more have opened. Remarkably, in Whitby’s downtown, upwards of fifteen new businesses have opened since March. “They’re finding their passion and following their dreams no matter what,” Karey says. “I am in awe of the resiliency these business owners have shown to weather this storm. They’re just amazing.”

Port Perry

In the Township of Scugog, the Port Perry BIA has increased the support and promotion of its businesses through marketing and digital campaigns. For example, it is currently working on rolling out a holiday gift guide that will feature many, if not all, of the downtown businesses. And like the Downtown Whitby BIA, the Port Perry BIA has also coordinated a gift card campaign, which was quite successful.

Downtown Port Perry, facing east on Queen Street
Downtown Port Perry
Photo: Mike Peleshok

When COVID-19 emerged, it was as much of a shock to the community of Port Perry as it was everywhere. But Melissa Rada, Marketing and Event Coordinator for the BIA, has found that Durham Region seems to have moved into what she refers to as ‘crisis mode’ fairly quickly in an effort to buckle down and determine how to move forward. “For the BIA, I know that we felt the challenge of figuring out how to keep our businesses going and help our members,” she says, “especially through such a hard time where we knew small businesses were going to be hit so hard. We really felt for our members and knew we needed to find a way to do more to support them through this time.”

Happily, Melissa and her team have seen the resiliency of their business owners first-hand. These owners have, overwhelmingly, moved to the online forum and built a presence for themselves in the world of online shopping. For its part, the BIA has not been shy in making sure the community knows what initiatives it has on the go. Their gift card campaign, for example, was highly publicized around town and in local newspapers. “We are as active as possible online,” Melissa says, “whether it’s social media, the website, or our regular newsletters.”

Supporting Durham Region’s Downtowns

COVID-19 has undoubtedly been a challenging time, and it is easy to focus on the negative impact it has had on our local businesses. But as with every hardship, there are glimmers of hope and positivity. Working so closely with their businesses has given the region’s BIAs a unique opportunity to see these glimmers in action. “There were a couple of our businesses that took advantage of the shutdown to do renovations,” Angela Mittoni, of the Downtown Oshawa BIA says. “One of our businesses closed, but within two months, the location reopened with another business. We actually have five or six businesses that have opened up downtown during COVID.”  Despite numerous setbacks, this success is, Angela feels, because of the network of support our local businesses receive—from the work that the BIAs are doing, to the work of the Durham Economic Task Force, and most importantly, to the rallying of our Durham Region residents, shopping locally.

We have no doubt that once the COVID-19 restrictions eventually lift, it will leave many of our businesses and downtowns stronger and more connected to the communities they serve.

Durham Region’s BIAs:

Downtown Ajax BIA
Pickering Village BIA
Downtown Whitby BIA
Downtown Oshawa BIA
Historic Downtown Bowmanville BIA
Village of Newcastle BIA
Orono BIA
Port Perry BIA
Uxbridge BIA

The Downtowns of Durham project is an initiative of the Durham Region Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) and the Economic Development and Tourism Division of the Regional Municipality of Durham. It was conceived in response to the COVID-19 crisis. While it is intended to promote the small businesses in our main street areas to endure a difficult period economically, it is also intended to help these areas recover and thrive.

Read more about the history of BIAs in Ontario.

Are you a business owner who has benefited from the support of one of our Downtown BIAs and their amazing staff? Connect with us on social media and share your story.