How Music & The Rolling Stones Helped Save Toronto After SARS

photo: Dveking

At the moment, it may be hard to imagine a world after the Coronavirus mass quarantine. Undoubtedly, there will be a new normal once we emerge from it. We just don’t know what that new normal will look like, and what role live music will play in it. But there is a little precedent that could help shed some light on the matter, and give us shimmers of hope that not only will live music return, it will likely help us return to normal, and help make us whole after this unprecedented situation.

Before there was COVID-19, there was SARS, which is also a strain of Coronavirus, only not as contagious, and much more deadly if you got it. Though the United States and many other countries were spared the worst of the SARS outbreak between 2002 and 2004, the city of Toronto, Canada was not so lucky. SARS first began infecting humans in the Guangdong province in southern China in 2002. When a 78-year-old Canadian woman contracted the virus in Hong Kong while staying at the same hotel as a doctor who’d been treating patients in Guangdong before SARS was fully understood, the disease migrated to Canada.

The 78-year-old woman returned to Toronto and died at home on March 5, 2003. Then two days later, her 44-year-old son went to the hospital with a high fever and respiratory illness, and eventually died himself. Soon, the entire family started showing symptoms, as well as many of the hospital workers who treated the son as the disease soon began to spread throughout the city uncontrolled.

Eventually 438 people in Toronto tested positive for the virus, and 44 died. Though these numbers may pale in comparison to some localities facing concerns from COVID-19 at the moment, fear of SARS became a serious disruption in Toronto, costing the city and its businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. The World Health Organization imposed a travel ban on Toronto, severely eroding support of the entertainment, tourism, and hospitality in the city. Businesses were closed, and thousands of service industry workers lost their jobs. And for an extended period of time the city carried a stigma due to SARS.

However, by the time the summer came around, an “all clear” had been declared from the pandemic. To restart the Toronto economy, The Rolling Stones had the idea of throwing a massive concert involving many Canadian bands and artists, with The Rolling Stones headlining. For years the band had used Toronto as a starting off point for international tours, playing club shows and such before hitting the stadium circuit.

Along with the Rolling Stones, other performers included Kathleen Edwards, The Flaming Lips, The Guess Who, Rush, AC/DC, and Justin Timberlake, with Canadian Dan Aykroyd hosting. Stars and sponsors kept being added until it became a major international event by the time the July 30th date came around. The whole thing was thrown together in about a month, from initial planning to full production.

Nicknamed by many as “SARS-a-palooza,” “Stars 4 SARS,” “SARSStock” and such, the event’s real name was “The Rolling Stones SARS Benefit Concert,” and later “Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto.” With an estimated 450,000 people attending the concert at Downsview Park in Toronto, it was the largest outdoor ticketed event in Canadian history, and one of the biggest in North American history. Ticket proceeds went to healthcare and hospitality workers.

Along with helping to support music and tourism, all sorts of Toronto and Canadian industries go into the action, including the Alberta beef industry which sold food at the event, and who’d been hit by the Mad Cow Disease scare as well. Portions of the concert were broadcast live on CBC, and it became a big moment of solidarity for both Toronto and Canada.

The show wasn’t without a little controversy though. The mostly rock audience had little use for Justin Timberlake, throwing water bottles, muffins, and rolls of toilet paper taken from the bathrooms at the American, and did it again when he came out to perform with The Rolling Stones for their set. But otherwise, the concert was a rousing success.

Of course SARS-a-palooza was just one event, and the circumstances are not exactly the same now. Since the whole world has come grinding to a halt due to the Coronavirus, every country, state, and municipality will need to be made whole, not just an individual city. But it does show how music can be a catalyst for recovery and rebirth, as it often is after major catastrophes.

Obviously, there still much to be determined of what the post COVID-19 world will look like, especially when it comes to live events. But music events big and small could, should, and likely will be some of the first ways communities congregate once again, while becoming a catalyst for recovery after the pandemic.

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