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COVID-19 roundup: A regional reopening

Empty downtown streets in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh
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It’s day 65 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 73,331 as of publication time, up 1,053 since yesterday—a 12 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases. On their respective 65th day, U.S. daily new cases were down 12 per cent from the seven-day prior average; the U.K. was down eight per cent in daily new cases from the seven-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down 35 per cent.*

Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies director, said the virus “may never go away.”

Alberta opens up—mostly: Starting today, daycares, apparel and book retailers, museums and art galleries across the province can start operating again. Restaurants and bars as well as anywhere that does hair can re-open everywhere outside Calgary and Brooks, where they’ll have to stay shut until at least May 25. Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday three-quarters of current provincial cases are in those two cities. Schools, movie theatres and nail salons will be part of the second phase, which is at least a month away. Ontario will start with golf courses, marinas and private parks on Saturday, the first day of the Victoria Day long weekend. On Tuesday, scheduled surgeries and in-person counselling can proceed, and non-mall retailers with their own street entrances will be allowed to take customers. Restaurants still can’t re-open, however. 

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Elsewhere, Quebec Premier François Legault said Montreal-area daycares will stay shut until at least the end of the month, and schools until late August. It’s the second time the provincial government has postponed. Legault said the situation in the region is “fragile.” Manitoba has given police and health officers authority to enforce public health orders by ticketing people who don’t comply. It’s also allocating $120 million for one-time “risk payments” to frontline workers. The federal government announced $469.4 million in new support for fish harvesters.

In the markets: All major North American stock indices closed up today despite rising tensions between the U.S. and China, and a U.S. jobs report showing nearly three million people applied for unemployment benefits last week. U.S. President Donald Trump said he may require Chinese firms to follow U.S. accounting rules if they want to list on U.S. exchanges, although he speculated such a move could prompt them to list in London. Meanwhile, unemployment applications declined in 43 states last week, but overall claims remain at record highs. Thirty-six and a half million people have filed applications in the past eight weeks. The Bank of Canada said its coronavirus recovery efforts appear to be working so far, but expressed concerns about the potential for credit downgrades in the oil sector. The Canadian dollar rose to 71.20 cents U.S. in late-afternoon trading. 

Oil consumption is rising in the parts of the world that are emerging from coronavirus lockdowns, driving a rally in oil prices. The Canadian Crude Index rose 11.79 per cent in late-afternoon trading. Three out of four U.S. small businesses sought federal aid due to the pandemic, but only 38 per cent have received it so far, according to a survey of 100,000 firms. The survey is a new offering by the U.S. Census Bureau designed to offer a weekly update on small-business health. It found that 31 per cent of firms expect it to take over six months to return to normal operation levels. Statistics Canada, which is also churning out extra economic indicators, reported that manufacturing sales dropped 9.2 per cent in March, the largest percentage decline since the 2008 recession. 

“We’re going to boldly allocate and acquire, build, innovate, partner, whatever. And then, we are also going to make sure that we have the ability to do credit for small businesses and other organizations that need that help”: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke to The New York Times about how the company will spend the money it made on share buybacks and dividends. 

Hopper lands another US$70 million: The new funding is meant to get the Montreal-based airline-ticket broker through the crisis so as to “leapfrog” other online travel agencies like Expedia when the economy starts recovering, The Logic has learned. San Francisco-based venture capital firm Westcap led the round, with investors including Montreal-based Inovia as well as the Business Development Bank of Canada, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, Investissement Québec and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. Hopper secured the funding even as it made the decision to lay off hundreds of workers, cuts that were announced April 6. The company didn’t announce the most recent funding round, and declined to discuss its particulars. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Ottawa’s 75 per cent wage subsidy has attracted 13 per cent of the expected number of applicants. So far, $3.36 billion has been paid out to 1.7 million employees via 132,481 employer applications—all but 9,000 of which have been approved. Ottawa has allocated $73 billion for the program. It’s possible the amount disbursed will tick up in the coming days as large businesses apply for the money. “Big companies will require a lot of data and a lot of information and they probably will take time to get it right,” said economist Ken Boessenkool. However, there are some signs that some are applying for the $2,000 subsidy for unemployed people instead of the wage subsidy: nearly eight million Canadians have applied for that benefit so far, double the expected number. 

  • Facedrive is looking to acquire the assets of Foodora Canada, including its 5,500 restaurant partners. 
  • A government memo instructs staff to give the $2,000 monthly CERB benefit to people who quit or were fired for cause, despite public requirements that workers need to have lost employment due to the pandemic. 
  • The World Economic Forum is criticizing the pace of Canada’s transition to sustainable energy in a report ranking the nation 28th on a scale that includes preparedness to fight climate change. 
  • Brookfield Asset Management has over US$60 billion in cash and client commitments for new investments that it plans to use to weather pandemic-related economic turmoil. The firm reported a first-quarter loss of US$157 million Thursday, compared with earnings of US$1.26 billion the same quarter last year. 
  • McDonald’s is resuming takeout service in 30 Canadian restaurants. If that goes well, it intends to reopen its 1,400 locations nationwide. 
  • Desjardins reported surplus earnings of $285 million for the three months ended March 31, a drop from the $401 million reported last year. Part of the drag was over 616,000 requests for financial relief from customers it received just between March 16 and March 31. 
  • The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board appears to have lost $1 billion on its investment in Royal Caribbean Cruises. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: The Future Skills Centre and Ontario Tourism Education Corporation are piloting a program in Ontario to support tourism and hospitality workers who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. An online platform is being set up to offer these workers access to government relief and job training.

Trace me on my cellphone: EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders warned that contact-tracing apps must only be used for the duration of the pandemic. His message came as concerns abound about India’s app, as the country widens its usage. Residents are worried the app could become a surveillance tool, as it extends beyond contact tracking to function as a digital pass for travel and a self-assessment tool. According to internal documents seen by Wired, the U.K’s contact-tracing app could also be extended to show people’s coronavirus health status and ask individuals to share exact location data. 

In the lab: Limited drug-manufacturing capacity will leave Canada reliant on other countries to produce enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines once they’re available, due in part to what one scientist called mistakes by former governments. French pharmaceutical company Sanofi has walked back its comments that the U.S. would have first access to its vaccine, saying all countries will have equal access. Health experts worry tensions between the U.S. and China could trigger geopolitical fights over a vaccine and limit access, particularly for poorer countries. 

Drinking from the firehose: Renewable energy is on track to surpass coal in producing electricity in the U.S. for the first time in history, in part due to COVID-19. While coal produced about half of the country’s electricity a decade ago, since then, the cost of producing wind and solar energy has dropped significantly. And as restaurants and businesses cut their energy use during lockdowns, providers have cut coal as a first step for reducing costs. 

  • The pandemic will cost the insurance industry an estimated US$200 billion. About half of those costs comes from paying claims for things like cancelled events and business interruptions, while the other half comes from investment losses on which assets insurers rely to fund claims. 
  • FedEx has capped the amount of goods large retailers can ship from certain locations as it tries to keep the onslaught of orders from overwhelming its services. 
  • McDonalds is asking its restaurants to follow dozens of health and safety protocols in order to reopen for dine-in service, including cleaning bathrooms every half-hour and digital kiosks after every order, and investing in touchless sinks and towel dispensers. The changes will add substantial costs for some franchisees and may make it infeasible for them to reopen. 
  • Google may have to delay onboarding new employees, as the tech giant deals with a shortage of laptops amid work-from-home orders. 

Around the world: The Wisconsin Supreme Court has struck down its governor’s stay-at-home order. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is lifting the state of emergency ahead of schedule in most of the country except for eight high-risk areas. New Zealand announced a US$30-billion recovery and investment package to help rebuild its economy—the largest in the country’s history. India will distribute free food grants worth US$463 million to nearly 80 million migrant workers for the next two months. Italy is granting residence permits to undocumented migrant workers during the crisis. The European Union has suspended the delivery of 10 million Chinese masks to member states and the United Kingdom after two countries complained about the poor quality of the batches they received. South American soccer players can no longer kiss the ball for good luck.

A haunted isolation: Some people say they are being kept company during the lockdown by invisible beings, from veterans of the Second World War to animals only they hear.

* 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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