COVID-19 roundup: A plan to reopen Ontario—but no ‘hard dates’

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It’s day 48 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 48,229 as of publication time, up 1,326 since yesterday, a 10 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases. On their respective 48th day, U.S. daily new cases were also down 10 per cent from the seven-day prior average; the U.K. was down 17 per cent in daily new cases from the seven-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down three per cent.* 

At its peak on March 22, Australia had more daily cases than Canada, with 537; the country is now down to an average of 16 new cases per day, while Canada’s current seven-day rolling average is 1,483.  

“This is a roadmap, not a calendar”: Ontario announced that it will reopen its economy in a three-stage process that will begin only after it sees a “consistent two-to-four week decrease” in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The plan says it will proceed “slowly and in phases” for schools, and that each phase will include the reopening of more workplaces and the loosening of restrictions around outdoor activities and public and social gatherings. Each phase is expected to last two to four weeks, with the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams, able to adjust the restrictions, extend the length of the phase or recommend Ontario advance to the next stage. Williams said last week that the province would need to see 200 or fewer daily case increases for an extended stretch before relaxing COVID-19 emergency measures. “The framework is about how we’re reopening, not when we’re reopening,” said Premier Doug Ford. “Progress doesn’t mean we can quit now and that’s why I won’t set hard dates until we’re ready, because the virus travels at its own speed.”

Quebec Premier François Legault said elementary schools and daycares will be allowed to reopen starting next month, with classes resuming on May 11 in regions outside Montreal that are less affected. High schools and universities will not reopen until August or September. Legault said the plan could be revised per the spread of the virus and that attendance was not mandatory. “Life must go on,” Legault said. Saskatchewan has announced initial details around its phased reopening, expected to begin May 4. New Brunswick recently loosened restrictions on some outdoor spaces and allowed families to partner up in what’s been described as two-family bubbles. 

More U.S. states and cities eased their lockdown orders Monday, despite researchers finding that more than half of the country’s states don’t have enough testing capabilities. 

Taking your CEWS: Almost 30,000 companies applied for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) between the program’s 6 a.m. ET opening time and 3 p.m. The Canada Revenue Agency will process this week’s claims next Monday. “Businesses should begin to see money in their accounts as of May 7,” if they have set up direct deposit through their financial institutions, Small Business Minister Mary Ng said. The government aims to resolve any applications that require follow-up within 72 hours, she said. At least one tech startup applied on Monday: atVenu, a point-of-sale and commerce platform for live events, whose CEO CEO Derek Ball told The Logic last month he was concerned his 28 Canada-based staff would not qualify, because the company is incorporated in the U.S. and Ottawa’s original wage subsidy was limited to Canadian-controlled firms. But the CEWS is open to cross-border startups. “The politicians were listening,” he said, adding that “assuming a positive outcome, we will be able to keep maintaining our full team.”

Some people might inadvertently receive both the CEWS and the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit. For example, their employer may have laid them off last month, but could now rehire them using the salary assistance program, which is backdated to March 15. In that case, “you should probably put one of them aside so that you can pay that back and you don’t get overly challenged with that down the road,” said Trudeau. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Monday some business owners may also qualify for the CEWS if they paid themselves as an employee of the company before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, 452,000 applicants have received a total of $16.3 billion in loans through the Canada Emergency Business Account, finance department spokesperson Anna Arneson told The Logic. The program gives small firms partially forgivable credit of up to $40,000 via their financial institutions and backed by Ottawa. The department declined to provide the total number of applications submitted. 

In the markets: U.S. stocks rose slightly as some states allowed businesses like salons and retailers to reopen over the weekend. The Dow Jones, Nasdaq and S&P 500 were all up over one per cent. The TSX was buoyed by news of Quebec and Ontario planning to reopen, as well as countries including Italy and Spain detailing reopening plans and the Bank of Japan promising to buy an unlimited amount of government bonds. It rose 1.54 per cent by market close, despite another drop in oil prices due to investor concerns about oversupply. The Canadian dollar rose 0.39 per cent to 71.18 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. China’s statistics bureau reported that industrial firms’ profits in March were down 34.9 per cent, a massive decrease, but better than the 38.3 per cent decline between January and February. In France, however, economic numbers kept dropping as the number of registered job seekers increased at the fastest pace since records began almost 25 years ago. In the U.S., some experts are concerned that mid-sized firms will be excluded from government support designed to get them through the pandemic, due to having too much leverage. Most analysts expect the U.S. Federal Reserve meetings later this week to bring little new in terms of major economic policy. Meanwhile, the U.S. is capping how much each financial institution can lend under its COVID-19 support program, and large banks are trying to figure out how to reopen their offices safely. 

About $90 billion: Statistics Canada estimates that’s how much Canada lost in net foreign assets in the first quarter, from holdings of just over $1 trillion at the end of 2019. The estimated international asset value is the largest quarterly drop since the agency started collecting data on it in 1990, and the percentage drop is the largest since the third quarter of 2008. The data is a flash estimate being released ahead of the typical 75-day waiting period in a bid by the government to provide reliable economic data during the pandemic.

“If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor”: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who returned to work on Sunday evening after three weeks, during which he suffered from a serious case of the coronavirus—said he wanted to “fire up the engines of this vast U.K. economy,” but wouldn’t risk overwhelming the health-care system to do so. He is betting on his country’s “spirit of optimism and energy” to overcome the pandemic.

Trace me on my cellphone: Quebec is considering a contact-tracing app to contain the second wave of the virus, studying technology used by countries including China and South Korea. The government has received 11 proposals—one of which came from Montreal-based Mila—and is deliberating between whether to use a Bluetooth or GPS-based app. Meanwhile, Yukon is “not considering launching an app,” said Diana Dryburgh-Moraal, a spokesperson at the territory’s Emergency Coordination Centre. U.S. states looking to use contact-tracing apps say the technology will only be effective if it uses both GPS and Bluetooth, putting them at odds with the app being developed by Google and Apple. 

Germany has shifted from centralized technology for its homegrown contact-tracing app in favour of a decentralized approach backed by Apple and Google, as well as many European countries. Australia launched its contact-tracing app on Sunday. Over two million people—eight per cent of the population—had downloaded it as of Monday night; the government has previously said that 40 per cent of the country would have to download it for the app to be most effective. France has withdrawn a focused debate and vote on its app; hundreds of academics are urging the government ahead of a debate tomorrow on all post-lockdown policies “to thoroughly analyze the health benefits of a digital solution with specialists.” Two former U.S. federal health officials are asking the government to allocate funding to help states track infected people and increase the contact-tracing workforce by 180,000, which they say will “have the added benefit of acting as an economic stimulus.”

Meanwhile, experts are warning that the apps could lead to a rise in Bluetooth attacks, urging developers to ensure they’re regularly tested and all vulnerabilities are made secure. The conflicting opinions aren’t stopping private companies from looking to the technology to track their own employees as they reopen offices and warehouses. Some, however, are considering artificial intelligence cameras, instead. 

The vaccine beat: Dartmouth, N.S.-based IMV is in talks with Nova Scotia, Quebec and the federal government over funding for its COVID-19 vaccine. “We should be the first in Canada to release pre-clinical data. Even in the world, we may be the first to release preclinical data on the different weaknesses of the virus,” CEO Frederic Ors told The Logic. The vaccine relies on its lipid-based water-free antigen delivery technology, which has been used successfully for other vaccines including for Ebola and respiratory syncytial virus. The firm is in the preclinical testing phase and has collected some results, but expects to have full results by the end of May. That’s also when IMV will need to have heard from the government on whether or not it’s providing funding. “No later than by the end of May we need to have clarity, maybe it doesn’t need to be fully finalized, but at least clarity on how this is going to unfold so that we can kick off the manufacturing for phase one,” said Ors, adding that his conversations with all three governments are going well. IMV, which has manufacturing facilities in the U.S., is also seeking government funding there. 

Elsewhere, a U.S. scientist who helped develop rapid testing for SARS in 2003 and advised on the pandemic film Contagion is working with his Chinese counterparts to determine whether the coronavirus emerged in other parts of China before it was first discovered in Wuhan. Bill Gates’ foundation is giving its “total attention” to developing a vaccine. The University of Oxford appears to be leading the search for a vaccine, having already scheduled tests with over 6,000 people; if it proves effective, it could be ready by September. Here’s a guide to the coronavirus vaccines that have been proposed so far.

Cross-country checkup: In Monday’s press conference, Trudeau echoed warnings from public health and medical experts that talk of “immunity passports” is premature, given the science is still not clear on whether someone can contract the virus again after having already had it. A group of residents in Brooks, Alta. is demanding the JBS meat-processing plant in the area be shut down as the number of infected employees mounts; the petition follows the closure of the Cargill meat plant in nearby High River. Faith groups will be eligible for wage subsidies to help fill a dearth of funding as donations dry up.  

“Perfect for large groups”: Ontario and Quebec have restricted short-term rentals as part of broader government efforts to encourage physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. But popular platforms Airbnb and Vrbo continue to list thousands of units for rent in both provinces, some for as little as one night and in shared rooms, and some for large groups. The lack of enforcement may reflect broader challenges governments face in regulating Airbnb and other platforms.

Bay Street to Main Street: Canada’s malls could see vacancy rates triple by year’s end, with the country’s largest ones being particularly hard hit. Only 20 to 25 per cent of tenants paid rent in the country’s enclosed regional malls, which includes the Eaton Centre in Toronto and Vacouver’s Pacific Centre, according to real estate firm JLL Canada. JLL, which uses third-party data to monitor the market, predicts the overall commercial vacancy rate hitting six to eight per cent. Some are looking to make money on the downturn. Executives and directors at some of Canada’s largest firms spent more than $66 million on shares of firms in the S&P/TSX 60 Index in March. Mass buybacks are on hold among many firms now, though, as they line up for government support programs like the 75 per cent wage subsidy. 

  • Porter Airlines is extending its suspension of all flights until at least June 29.
  • Telus and Koodo are giving frontline health-care workers at six Ontario hospitals two months of free wireless service. The telecom plans to offer a similar discount in Quebec, B.C. and Alberta.
  • The CEOs of National Bank and Desjardins say businesses will need new capital on top of existing government support. 
  • TD Bank has been selected to lead the Bank of Canada’s $10-billion corporate bond-purchasing program.
  • The shortlist for the next Bank of Canada governor is reportedly down to two people, including current senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins. 
  • Montreal-based, which offers an online bus rental platform, has named Maxie Lafleur as its new CEO. 
  • Toronto-based venture capital firm Awz Ventures has invested $5 million in Israeli firm Corsight AI, which is developing facial recognition tech for mask-covered visages. Awz, which includes former prime minister Stephen Harper as a partner and president of its advisory council, is the latest Canadian venture capital firm to make an Israeli investment, following on Kensington Capital Partners’ January investment in Iguazio. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Libro Credit Union, Pillar Nonprofit Network and TechAlliance have joined forces to launch Recovery & Rebuilding the Region: Design Challenges to solve COVID-19 issues in southwestern Ontario. The challenge offers $20,000 in funding; applications are open from April 30 to May 2. Two Canadian doctors along with a coalition of North American tech leaders have launched, a central platform for frontline doctors to crowdsource and share information about the virus. “My aunt in Vancouver was asking questions about [COVID-19] and didn’t know where to find verified answers on Google,” said Sharif Virani, a spokesperson for Atomic Motion, a partner in the project. “So we created a way for everyone to get unbiased, real-time information directly from frontline workers.” There are currently 300 doctors on the platform; here’s a video showing how it came together. 

Postcard from Austin: Tanya White decided to become an American citizen last year so she could vote in the 2020 presidential election. After relocating from Toronto to Texas 11 years ago, she’s now an investor with Pipeline Angels, a fund that backs women-led early-stage startups. Texas’s shelter-in-place order was announced a week before her scheduled citizenship interview, which has been postponed indefinitely. “I’m going to miss the election again. That’s a bit of a bummer,” she told The Logic.

White lives in Holly, a neighbourhood in the east end of the city, which she describes as “a hotspot of local chefs and restaurants” where you could pick from five different happy hours to go to on any given evening. She misses going to her local pub, where the servers know her drink. While she waits for things to gradually open, she feels lucky to have a large backyard with a firepit where she can spend time with four friends, in line with the state’s five-person limit. “I tell them that they can stay outside, but if they go inside, they shouldn’t touch anything except the bathroom door, so I can clean it quickly afterwards,” she said.

While White is used to working at home, she wonders about how networking will change after the pandemic. “I think we won’t shake hands anymore, or we’ll sit further apart,” she said. In an effort to become a true Texan, White was learning country western dancing before the quarantine started. “That community is feeling a lot of uncertainty, because you’re literally exchanging sweat.” 

Drinking from the firehose: Some businesses have started reopening, as parts of the world begin easing lockdown measures. Workers at VW’s Wolfsburg, Germany factory—the car maker’s biggest in the world—returned to work on Monday, and Italy will allow factories to reopen next week. 

  • Instacart has reached profitability for the first time, with April sales up 450 per cent compared to December 2019 due to surging demand for grocery delivery. CEO Apoorva Mehta said in September 2016 that the firm would be profitable within 12 months.
  • Starbucks is partnering with venture capital firm Sequoia Capital China to co-invest in Chinese tech companies. 
  • Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has bought a US$500-million stake in Live Nation, representing 5.7 per cent of the concert-promotions firm, as it reels from cancellations due to COVID-19. 
  • Norweigen videoconferencing firm Pexip, which competes with Zoom Video Communications, plans to raise US$200 million in what would be Scandinavia’s biggest public offering. 
  • Hilton Worldwide Holdings has partnered with Reckitt Benckiser Group, the maker of Lysol, and the Mayo Clinic to introduce new cleaning procedures in its hotels. 
  • Biotech companies are still finding ways to successfully go public.

Around the world: The global coronavirus case count has surpassed three million, according to Johns Hopkins University. Russia has now overtaken China in the number of confirmed cases. The U.S small-business relief program re-opened Monday with technical issues; more than 220 public companies have already applied for at least US$870 million in relief through it. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, floated the idea of a basic income as a way to help the American economy weather the coronavirus pandemic. British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has announced new taxpayer-backed “bounceback” loans under which companies will be able to borrow up to £50,000. The micro-loans will be free of interest, fees and payments for 12 months and will be available next Monday, with the first loans likely to arrive within 24 hours.

Wuhan, China has discharged all of its coronavirus patients. Japan, which has not imposed a lockdown and refused to do widespread testing, reported its lowest daily level of cases in over three weeks. Turkey will send a shipment of masks and other protective equipment to the United States. Germans could be fined between €25 and €10,000 for not wearing masks. India has cancelled orders for rapid antibody tests from two Chinese companies, citing accuracy concerns. India’s funeral directors say they have seen a dramatic drop in mortality since the lockdown started: “We typically get 20 bodies a day, but these days it’s one or two, maximum,” said one, attributing the difference to near-absence of road and railway accidents. A UN official warned that the economic fallout of the pandemic could push 29 million Latin Americans into poverty this year.

“It’s old-school, like when we were kids in little clubs”: Top German soccer team Borussia Dortmund has been back at practice for nearly a month; its social-distancing measures include long passes and no showers. 

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.


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