Hamilton, Canada – Hamilton’s taxi industry continues to languish as COVID-19 drives down fares during its vicious second wave.
“December used to be our busiest month. This year, it’s slower than even summer because people cannot go anywhere,” says Jagtar Singh Chahal, CEO of Hamilton Cab.
With no corporate bookings to celebrate Christmas and ring in 2021, the industry is bracing for an unusually quiet winter season.
“So it won’t be tough getting a cab, I think, on New Year’s Eve for a change,” offers Anthony Rizzuto, president of Blue Line.
Despite the gloom, compounded by spiked insurance costs and competition from ride-hailing services, Rizzuto and Chahal are buoyed by the relief coming from city hall.
On Tuesday, councillors at the planning committee backed a staff recommendation to provide taxi plate owners a break on the municipality’s $661 annual fee.
Instead, owners whose plates are inactive can pay a $115 user fee that puts them “on hold” for a year.
Normally, if owners don’t pay the $661 fee, they must relinquish the plates to the city so they can be reissued. The city doesn’t compensate owners when they give up plates.
“This is something positive,” Chahal said about the pending temporary relief program, which needs final approval at council next week.
“Guys don’t want to lose their plate,” Rizzuto said, noting owners paid dearly for them on the open market. “Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, they can’t operate.”
Hamilton’s taxi brokerages have reported that 100 of 475 plates in Hamilton are out of service. This means the city stands to forgo an estimated $66,100 in revenue by temporarily waiving the full annual fees, staff note in a report.
Taxi drivers are doing an “enormous job out there” during the pandemic, Coun. Maria Pearson said. “It cannot be easy for that industry.”
Local operators have pushed the city for breaks for some time with their business virtually screeching to a halt when COVID-19 took hold in spring.
In March, round 400 cabs were on the road. In April, the number dropped to 140 before inching up again in summer.
Chahal says Hamilton Cab had 225 active plates before the pandemic and now has about 164.
He notes it has been a struggle for some plate owners to keep drivers behind the wheel, whether it’s because they’re worried about bringing the virus home with them or stuck in self-isolation.
“So when we lose drivers, we lose money, and we lose service. So this is a very dangerous time,” Chahal said.
Meanwhile, fear is also a factor in drawing fares, despite safety measures such as plastic barriers that separate drivers from passengers, he added.
Rizzuto says a recent Zoom meeting with city officials and industry representatives that led to the suggested $115 holding fee was productive. “I think the city was excellent in understanding our position.”
He looks forward to another virtual meeting scheduled for the new year to continue exploring options for the hurting sector. “Hopefully, get this industry back on its feet.”