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April 25, 2003 -- On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) told people to defer nonessential travel to Toronto, Canada because of SARS, the mysterious new flu-like disease. [To learn more about SARS, read Bob Fisher's in-depth analysis by clicking here.]

But if you think Toronto is taking this lying down, think again. Canadian and US health officials are disputing the WHO's assessment that travelers are at risk, and local residents say Toronto isn't acting like a city in the grip of an epidemic. According to locals, the streets are full of shoppers, the subways are full of passengers, and almost nobody's wearing face masks.

Amy Brown, a programmer in Toronto, is pregnant -- so she's particularly concerned about her health, SARS or no. But she says the WHO's travel advisory is way over the top.

"I've seen exactly four people wearing masks since the whole thing began a few weeks ago. The only effect it has had on my life is that I'm now careful to wash my hands when I get to work and when I get home, after I've been on the subway," she says.

Donna McSherry, a travel agent in Toronto who mostly sells tours to South America, said she tends to pay more attention than usual to people coughing, but that she hasn't seen many people wearing face masks and that Torontonians are going about their daily business.

"Can I confidently recommend for my American clients to come to Toronto? Yes, without a doubt," McSherry says.

News reports, however, say thousands of travelers have cancelled their hotel reservations in Toronto and that malls and restaurants serving the Chinese community -- the group most affected by SARS -- have emptied out.

(The WHO also issued a much less controversial alert Wednesday telling people not to travel to Beijing and Shanxi province in China; most airlines have had policies in effect allowing travelers to defer trips to China for several weeks now. To read the WHO's statement on Toronto, go to www.who.int/mediacentre/notes/2003/np7/en.)

Canada's SARS Debate

Here's the debate: The CDC and Health Canada (an arm of the Canadian government) say SARS in Toronto has only been spread to people who know, are related to or have had very close contact with existing SARS patients -- such as medical workers.

"SARS transmission in Toronto has been limited to a small number of hospitals, households, and specific community settings," the CDC's Toronto travel alert says. The organization advises that travelers wash their hands often and avoid hospitals where SARS patients are being treated, but doesn't tell Americans to avoid Toronto.

The WHO, on the other hand, says that Toronto has "exported" SARS cases to the Philippines and Australia and therefore the travel ban is justified. Toronto's health officer, Sheela Basrur, told Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper on Thursday that there was a dispute over whether the Philippines case was SARS at all.

According to the WHO, as of April 23, 140 cases of SARS had been reported in Canada, resulting in 13 deaths. Worldwide, there have been 4,288 SARS cases and 251 deaths.

Health Canada said in a statement that "Health Canada does not support the WHO's position; it is safe to travel to Toronto," and that the organization would be formally challenging the WHO's advisory.

Meanwhile, some bus tours to Toronto have been cancelled and one cruise line, Crystal Cruises, has banned Toronto residents from boarding its boats in May. Travelers at US-Canada border points will get pamphlets with information on SARS and be asked to monitor their health for 10 days. Nobody will be quarantined heading home from Canada.

Airlines Offer Flexibility

Several airlines and Canada's railways are also taking no chances.

  • Tickets on Air Canada for travel to or from Asia or Toronto before May 14, purchased before April 24, can change their tickets to any time before Dec. 31 with no penalty. Travelers currently in Toronto can make their return dates earlier with no penalty.
  • Tickets on United issued on or before today for travel to Toronto before May 31 may be changed without penalty to any date before Dec. 31. You must rebook before May 15 or the date of your flight, whichever comes first.
  • Northwest may have the best change policy. For any tickets within North America, Central America or the Caribbean originally scheduled to depart before May 31, travelers may change their travel to dates as late as Dec. 15. Flights must be re-booked by May 19 or the date of travel, whichever comes first.
  • Any tickets issued on American to Toronto before April 20, for travel before May 19, can be rebooked for as late as Dec. 31 with no change fee. You've got until your original travel dates to rebook the tickets.
  • US Airways is allowing travelers with tickets to Toronto who had planned to travel within the next 90 days to change the date or destination of their tickets.
  • America West, Continental and Delta do not have any policies in place affecting travel to Toronto as of April 24.
  • Priceline doesn't have a policy in place regarding Toronto, so your hotel rooms are still non-refundable and non-changeable.
  • For airline tickets, Hotwire is following the policy of the airline you're flying on. Hotwire customers with hotel bookings in Toronto before May 18 may also call Hotwire to change their travel dates.
  • VIA Rail, Canada's national rail system, is allowing the rebooking of any trip scheduled within one month to an outbound travel date no later than June 30. But Amtrak hasn't started a similar policy yet, so if you've got an international train ticket, you may be out of luck.

Have you altered your Toronto travel plans or have you recently returned from there? Do you live there? What's your opinion on the SARS situation? Let us know in our Toronto Message boards by clicking here.