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The city is launching a new digital initiative to help hard-hit businesses and artists continue to do business through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor John Tory said Monday that the “ShopHERE” program will enlist volunteer web developers and marketers to help small businesses and artists set up online stores.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to help our main street small businesses get through this crisis,” he said at the city’s daily briefing on the pandemic.

Mannequin heads are on display with face masks for sale in a storefront window during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Tory said the goal of the program is to develop 3,000 online stores for independent businesses and artists in the city.

The program is being made possible through help from some of the city’s best-known tech giants, including Shopify, Google, MasterCard, Microsoft, Facebook, EBay, SnapChat and many others, as well as through the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) and York University’s Schulich School of Business.

The program is open to local artists, and Toronto businesses that pay commercial property tax in Toronto, have fewer than 10 employees or fewer than 25 employees if they are a restaurant or bar, and are not corporate chains or franchises.

City staff estimate that around 49,500 businesses are eligible for the initial run of the program, which is being offered from now through to the end of August. Those businesses include around 7,371 restaurants, bars and cafes.

With the number of eligible businesses far exceeding the program’s current capacity, Tory issued a challenge to more tech businesses in the city to contribute to the program on a volunteer basis.

“I am issuing a challenge for more Toronto technology companies to get involved – as they have done countless times during this pandemic – and volunteer to build online stores for Toronto’s independent businesses and artists to help them survive and recover,” the mayor said.

The program will provide eligible businesses with templates and hands-on assistance setting up online stores. Businesses will also get training about shipping, free advertising credits and help from marketing students.

ShopHERE will be delivered via the Digital Main Street platform, which was created several years ago by TABIA and the city to help local businesses learn about and embrace digital change.

Asked why the program is only being announced a couple of months into the pandemic, Tory said the ShopHERE program builds on work that was already being done by Digital Main Street, which has seen its budget tripled in response to the pandemic.

“It’s building on an initiative we already had where we tripled the budget of the Digital Main Street program earlier on,” Tory said. “They’re delivering on hundreds of new businesses in addition to the 3,000 that will be delivered by this new initiative.”

Businesses looking to apply can find more information on the program’s website.