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COVID-19 roundup: A million Canadians homeward bound

A man, right, strolls by a large crowd of spring break revelers gathered on the beach, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla. AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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It’s day 13 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 2,020, as of publication time. On their respective 13th day, the U.K. had 1,950 cases, the U.S. had 3,680 and Italy 4,636.* 

Giulio Gallera, Lombardy’s health minister, said there was a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the battered Northern Italian region, which is now seeing a slowdown in the rate of new infections for the third consecutive day. The number of diagnosed cases increased by 8.1 per cent on Monday, down from increases of over 10 per cent per day over the past week. The number of dead in Italy still rose by a startling 601 people over the past 24 hours, now sitting at 6,077. 

“Enough is enough. Go home and stay home”: In his public briefing on the government’s COVID-19 measures Monday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was stern as he warned the federal government could enforce stricter measures if the country doesn’t proactively comply with social-distancing rules. The tough-love theme was everywhere Monday: Ontario Premier Doug Ford was visibly frustrated as he announced the mandatory closure of all non-essential businesses starting Tuesday night at 11:59 p.m. ET. Speaking directly to Ontarians returning home from March Break vacations, he said, “You have to self-isolate for 14 days. Bottom line. Full stop. No negotiating. No store; no running to the gas station. You’re self-isolating, simple as that.” Quebec Premier François Legault announced similar measures effective midnight Tuesday until April 13. Toronto Mayor John Tory declared a state of emergency Monday, saying doing so “sends the strongest possible message to our residents to stay home and to change their behaviour.” Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart also said Sunday that he was “done asking nicely,” and will pass bylaws to authorize measures penalizing those caught violating orders. As Trudeau remarked, “We’ve all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they’re invincible. Well, you’re not.” 

1,003,490: That’s the number of people who returned to Canada from abroad between March 14 and March 20, the Canada Border Services Agency told The Logic. Approximately 55.1 per cent of people came home by air; some 44.7 per cent by land; and 0.2 per cent by sea. Roughly 96 per cent were Canadian citizens and four per cent permanent residents.

Another volatile day: The U.S. Federal Reserve announced there would be no limit to its securities-purchase program, an unprecedented move.  But a key Senate vote on the country’s proposed US$2-trillion stimulus package failed for a second time Monday afternoon. By that time, the Dow Jones had fallen another 3.04 per cent; the S&P 500 lost 2.93 per cent; and the Nasdaq dropped 0.27 per cent. Meanwhile, the Toronto Stock Exchange, which announced “blanket relief measures” for companies today, also fell 5.26 per cent. The Canadian dollar ended the trading day below 69 cents U.S., falling to 68.76 cents, down 1.28 per cent.

Ottawa backs Canadian biotech: On Monday, Trudeau also announced $192 million in new money for a dedicated COVID-19 stream of the Strategic Innovation Fund. The government intends to award an as-yet-undetermined amount of that to two biotech companies working on antiviral medication. One is Quebec City-based Medicago, which has a potential plant-based vaccine; the federal funding will accelerate clinical trials and production, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said. The other, Vancouver’s AbCellera, is working with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly on antibody-based drugs. Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada is using Toronto-based startup BlueDot’s analytics software to track the virus’s spread. 

“We will send the police over. With flamethrowers”: That’s what Vincenzo De Luca, president of Southern Italy’s Campania, threatened his constituents with, after hearing people wanted to breach lockdown and host graduation parties. Other mayors and regional leaders were furious in their dispatches at those who were going jogging, playing ping-pong and taking dogs for long walks. 

ICYMI: Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke isn’t happy with the quality of his Rogers service, blaming packet loss for disrupting his attempts to videoconference. “You have to upgrade your gear fast,” Lütke advised. A Rogers customer service rep with the initials “MAP” responded over Twitter a few hours later, asking Lütke, “Please DM me the phone number to your account and I will look into that for you.”

The September scenario: Canada will lose another 330,000-plus jobs in the second and third quarters, and the economy will contract 1.1 per cent in 2020 if travel bans and social-distancing measures remain in place here and in the U.S. through the end of August, the Conference Board of Canada forecast in a report released Monday. But it sees “pent-up consumer demand” pushing real GDP growth up 3.3 per cent in 2021. Meanwhile, in his most pessimistic calculation for Canada’s post-coronavirus economy, Chris Ragan, director of McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, found that GDP would decline by over 25 per cent. His optimistic outlook sees GDP declining by 8.25 per cent. “Using even moderate numbers for employment losses due to self-isolation yields annual losses of GDP which are large by historical comparison,” he wrote. “A pandemic recession is likely to be very large.”

Cross-country checkup: British Columbia announced relief measures on Monday that include a postponement of all payments—including provincial sales tax, municipal tax, carbon tax and employer health tax, until September 30—Alberta is granting extensions for oil and gas leases for one year, and has set up an economic recovery advisory council that includes former prime minister Stephen Harper. Calgary is reducing the number of homeless shelter spaces by 400 “to spread them out a bit so that we don’t get a rampant outbreak.” The Edmonton Transit Service waived fares for all passengers “until further notice.” 

Briefly: 

  • Cineplex is laying off its part-time workers as the movie-theatre chain closes all its locations until at least April 2. 
  • Point-of-sale company Lightspeed is making services for merchants, including a restaurant-delivery platform and a loyalty program, free for three months.
  • Brookfield Asset Management CEO Bruce Flatt offered shareholders assurance that the firm was in “very good shape” to weather the economic downturn. Compared to the 2008 financial crisis and the economic impact of 9/11, he said, “this uncertainty and volatility feels manageable,” in part crediting the strength of the banking system. 
  • The service industry is weighing whether to lay off staff so they can get employment insurance, or keep them on with few or no shifts in the hopes better government aid will help cover their salaries. 
  • Empire, Sobeys’s parent company, is giving employees a $50 weekly bonus and, for those who work over 20 hours weekly, a $2 hourly raise; Loblaw and Metro are likewise increasing hourly wages by $2, both effective retroactively as of March 8. Starting Monday, food-manufacturing workers at Maple Leaf Foods and Cargill will get a $2 hourly raise, with some staff eligible for a $500 bonus. 

Help wanted: Knix CEO Joanna Griffiths is collecting donations so the company can order and distribute masks, gloves and gowns to Canadian hospitals. Christopher Cocca, global digital experience vice-president at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, is seeking a “a trusted traveler program for health.” TechTO has organized a free online meeting tonight at 7 p.m. ET, featuring the likes of Michele Romanow, Michael Katchen and Andrew D’Souza, discussing how to navigate the current crisis. And here’s a list of funding available for coronavirus-related innovations and projects, from FoundersBeta. 

“We’re basically hitting a reset button”: Local businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios and convenience stores are “suffering the most right now,” said Cato Pastoll, CEO of Lending Loop, a Toronto-based platform that lends independent investors’ capital to small firms. “Most of them have gone from having slim-margin businesses, where they rely on their month-to-month volume, to essentially being put out of business.” But banks and the Business Development Bank of Canada—which is managing part of Ottawa’s $10-billion COVID-19 funding program—don’t normally lend to that segment, and micro firms can’t accumulate rainy-day funds like larger companies. “We need to move at lightning pace if we want to save these businesses, otherwise we’re basically hitting a reset button,” Pastoll said.  

Advice from investors: Emergence Capital partner Jason Green is telling startups “to forget their year plan,” adding that the way forward is to “keep a close eye on what’s happening and adjust accordingly.” In an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Michael Sabia, former CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, advised governments to lead their stimulus plans with how they will restart economies again with “a new generation” of spending and investment. “This is uncharted territory,” Sabia wrote. “Leaving it to chance will only make the reignition process longer, more difficult and more haphazard. What’s more, we would forfeit a precious opportunity to shape our future economy.”

Chariots on fire: The International Olympic Committee will postpone this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, which Tokyo was set to host this summer. IOC member Dick Pound said they’ll likely be moved to 2021, with details to be worked out in the next four weeks. The Canadian Olympic Committee had been the first country to decide not to compete in the games, saying Sunday night, “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community.”

“Freezing the economy”: It took just 24 hours for the Danish government to negotiate an aggressive financial aid package for companies, spending as much as 13 per cent of its GDP in three months on measures including guaranteeing 70 percent of new bank loans to companies; removing requirements for unemployment benefits; compensating companies for fixed expenses like rent; and paying 75 per cent of employees’ salaries. “We are freezing the economy,” Flemming Larsen, a professor at the Center for Labor Market Research at Denmark’s Aalborg University, told The Atlantic. “Because otherwise the government is afraid of the long-term damage that this will do to the entire system. The hope is that this will be over in three or four months, and then we can start up society again.” China took that approach, too, shutting down its economy to stop the spread of the virus—though the ramifications on the global economy have been severe. No one has officially declared a global recession yet, but The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey did declare this period of economic activity to be “an ice age.” 

Briefly: 

  • More than three-quarters of U.S. small businesses have already been hurt by COVID-19, according to a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business; 77 per cent of those that haven’t been affected anticipate that will change over the next three months. 
  • AT&T halted plans to buy back US$4 billion of its own shares, citing the need to keep investing in services like “enhancing our network, including nationwide 5G.”
  • Layoffs hit venture capital-backed firms in Silicon Valley—online mattress retailer Eight Sleep, recruiting firm Triplebyte, hospitality startup The Guild and luxury sleeper-bus service Cabin have each laid off about 20 per cent of their staff. E-scooter company Lime is reportedly considering layoffs after pulling out of most markets.
  • Amazon, Google, Microsoft and IBM joined a public-private initiative with the White House to give COVID-19 researchers access to supercomputers. 
  • Instacart plans to hire 300,000 more workers to pick up and deliver groceries across North America in the next three months as demand balloons. 
  • Goya has seen its bean sales spike as much as 400 per cent as shoppers stock up on long-lasting food items.

Around the world: International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva predicted “a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse,” followed by a recovery in 2021. “The faster the virus stops, the quicker and stronger the recovery will be,” she said. The World Bank could deploy US$150 billion over the next 15 months. Japan will spend over US$137 billion to boost its economy, with more possibly to come. The European parliament has moved to email voting. The British government is talking to Amazon about delivering COVID-19 tests. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has empowered the police to take action if people do not stay at home. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in self-quarantine following contact with a doctor who had tested positive for the virus. Gaza reported its first COVID-19 cases over the weekend. The World Health Organization has seen a more than twofold increase in cyberattacks. As almost one in three Americans are under strict orders to stay at home, Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’ll “keep pushing” the White House to get things right: “When you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens.” The virus has disrupted diplomacy as we know it, and “Coronation Street” is cancelled. Meanwhile, fishermen are returning home to California to find a lockdown state and nowhere to sell their catch—they’re now offering home deliveries.

Filling the void: Some sports fans spent the weekend coming up with trick golf shots in their living rooms, while others watched their favourite NASCAR drivers take to the virtual track in a simulated race that was broadcast live on Fox Sports 1. Nick Heath, a freelance rugby commentator, has taken to narrating his everyday life in London in 20- to 30-second videos about pedestrians crossing the street (“2020 Crossroad Dash”) or two dogs racing at a park (“Dogging”): “Vanilla just over the hill in the distance. Chocolate in hot pursuit. There’s been some lovely footwork.”

* Numbers aren’t adjusted for population because the virus spreads at roughly the same pace regardless of country size. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

Correction: Lightspeed is making some of its existing services free to clients for three months. This story has been updated.

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