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COVID-19 roundup: Airbnb cuts 25 per cent of global staff

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks during an event in San Francisco in February 2018. AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
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It’s day 56 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 61,961 as of publication time, up 1,189 since yesterday—a 25 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases. On their respective 56th day, U.S. daily new cases were also down 25 per cent from the seven-day prior average; the U.K. was down 11 per cent in daily new cases from the seven-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down two per cent.* 

The U.K. has surpassed Italy to become the European country with the most deaths from the coronavirus, according to British government data released on Tuesday. The death toll from people testing positive for COVID-19 sits at 29,427 in the U.K., compared to 29,316 in Italy.

Airbnb lays off 1,900: The cuts, which affect 25 per cent of Airbnb staff worldwide, come as the company projected 2020 revenue to be less than half of the US$4.8 billion brought in last year. The Information broke the news about the layoffs, as well as Airbnb’s plans to halt initiatives related to transportation and television production. The firm will also “scale back” on adding hotels and luxury stays to its platform, after raising over US$2 billion in debt recently to cope with massive losses from lost booking revenue.

A spokesperson for the firm told The Logic they weren’t yet able to share Canada-specific numbers about the layoffs. Airbnb has had a difficult few months in the country. The company asked for federal support in March to help hosts cover losses stemming from COVID-19, but the government has not offered any money. Ontario and Quebec subsequently restricted short-term rentals in their provinces, leaving Airbnb listings in the latter province to drop to nearly zero. 

Hard lessons: Though no other provinces have even set dates for when classes will resume, Quebec Premier François Legault is standing by his decision to let parents outside Montreal send their children back to elementary schools and daycares starting May 11. 

However, kids returning to class will have to stay within the boundaries of their assigned personal spaces, leaving only to use the bathroom and for physically distanced recesses. Classrooms will be limited to 15 students; there won’t be any physical education, music, drama or art classes. 

The plan has divided parents and teachers in Quebec, some of whom think it’s too soon to return, as the province—which has become the epicentre of the country’s outbreak—struggles to control the spread of the virus. 

Those in favour of the decision see it as an essential first step in getting the economy moving—freeing up time for taxed parents juggling full-time work, parenting and homeschooling. Along with relieving pressure for parents working remotely and those deemed essential workers, it could also allow more people to return to work, said Erin Strumpf, an epidemiology professor at McGill University. The back-to-school measures could be particularly supportive for women, who—overrepresented in sectors that have been hard hit by job losses, as well as in essential services—have borne the brunt of the economic downturn.

In the markets: All major North American indices were up on optimism about the easing of restrictions throughout the continent and in Europe, as well as the extended oil price rebound. It’s not all good news for the oil sector, though, as oil and gas output is on track to hit its lowest levels in at least 17 years. The Canadian dollar was up 0.27 per cent in late afternoon trading, hitting 71.15 cents U.S. 

The rally came despite near-universal negative macroeconomic news. Canada’s exports of goods dropped 4.7 per cent in March from February, pushing the merchandise trade deficit to $1.4 billion. The OECD reported that inflation in member nations had collapsed at its fastest pace since the 2008 financial crisis, from 2.3 per cent in February to 1.7 per cent in March. The OECD’s chief economist warned that the global economy will not bounce back rapidly. The U.K. economy is already on course for an unprecedented seven per cent quarterly contraction. The number of U.S. blue chips providing full-year profit guidance has dropped in half, making it difficult for analysts to predict the full impact of COVID-19. A German court has ruled the country must stop cooperating with the European Central Bank’s stimulus scheme within the next three months, unless the bank can prove it’s not excessive; the ruling drove down the value of the euro. Meanwhile, RBC data shows consumer spending is down 17 per cent from pre-crisis levels.

“There’s things that would have seemed weird like six weeks ago that don’t seem weird now”: Google data editor Simon Rogers spoke about how the search giant’s trends reflect changing behaviour amid the pandemic. A phrase like “drive-by birthday party,” which had never been used before, spiked 5,000 per cent. The surge in searches for “shredded” was not because of exercise, but “shredded chicken.”

In the lab: Pfizer’s first U.S. vaccine trials kicked off Monday with hundreds of volunteers. The vaccine, being developed in partnership with German firm BioNTech, is based on messenger RNA, genetic material that sends information to a cell to create proteins. A German trial began last month. If successful, the vaccine could be ready for use by September. Separate studies in Israel and the Netherlands claim to have created antibodies that can block the coronavirus infection. Scientists have identified the first case of the coronavirus infecting placenta, “highlighting the potential for severe morbidity among pregnant women with COVID-19.”

Trace me on my cellphone: The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to publicly disclose any contact-tracing partnerships involving Canada’s communications providers. “It appears that the federal government and several provincial governments and apparently at least one municipal government have been in talks or consultations with private companies to design smartphone-based contact-tracing in an effort to deal with the present COVID-19 epidemic,” the filing reads.

France said Apple’s refusal to make its iPhones more compatible with the government’s planned contact-tracing app is undermining its virus-fighting efforts. Israel will continue to use mobile phone data to track people infected by the coronavirus until May 26. It plans to add Bluetooth capabilities to a new version in the coming weeks to reach at least four million people. Australia’s COVIDSafe app has been downloaded over five million times, nearing the government’s target, but faces technical difficulties. Here’s a closer look at the U.K.’s app.

SR&ED backlog at $156 million: That’s down from the $195.2 million that was under review as of March 30. The drop comes one week after The Logic reported the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) had stopped launching new audits and was expediting existing ones. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, the SR&ED Program has validated, processed and approved approximately $360 million in refundable tax credits, providing much-needed financial support to claimants,” said CRA spokesperson Dany Morin.

Cross-country checkup: There were more than 5,200 flights between Canada and countries with at least 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the two weeks before Ottawa imposed a travel ban on March 13. With the majority of cases in February and March in Canada being travel-related, some health experts believe an earlier ban would have saved lives. Police are investigating fires at three cellphone towers in Quebec amid baseless conspiracy theories claiming 5G technology is linked to the spread of COVID-19. The CEO of Spartan Bioscience said its COVID-19 rapid-testing technology, which Health Canada has restricted to research use only, will be fixed by summer. Canada is behind other countries in reporting mortality data, which experts say could compromise the country’s ability to identify trends and respond adequately to the virus. B.C.’s provincial health officer said its health-care system is equipped to handle more people going back to work and socializing. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he has spoken to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland about a “national plan for contact tracing.” The federal government allocated an “initial” $252 million in federal aid for the agri-food industry.

Chef Galen: On Monday, Loblaw soft-launched an online delivery service in the Greater Toronto Area for its PC Chef Meal Kits. Loblaw said the service was part of its long-term strategy, but that it sped up the launch as it was “well-suited for the current pandemic situation.” The grocer partnered with Shopify for the endeavour. The decision came as Canadians proved less inclined to visit brick-and-mortar stores during the pandemic. A Dalhousie University survey of 1,503 Canadians found that nine per cent of respondents intended to order food online regularly, compared to less than two per cent before COVID-19. Once the pandemic is over, two per cent plan to order meal kits more often, while 47 per cent of respondents plan to cook more at home. 

Bay Street to Main Street: As much as 80 per cent of BMO’s workforce, or 36,000 out of 45,000 people, may continue to work from home at least part of the time post-pandemic. “We’ve been able to maintain continuity of banking services with far more people working outside the office than we ever thought possible,” said Mona Malone, the bank’s chief human resources officer. The move will help keep BMO staff safe by reducing the number of people in offices and may also help the company recruit. “It allows us to look for new talent in locations where maybe we haven’t before, and tap into talent pools across the country,” Malone said. BMO is the latest large Canadian firm to announce plans to rely more heavily on remote workers. Last week, OpenText, which employs nearly 15,000 people, said it wouldn’t reopen half its offices. The two firms may be on the leading edge of a larger shift. Fifty-nine per cent of U.S. employers expect to keep their work-from-home policies in place post-pandemic, according to a recent survey by advisory firm Willis Towers Watson.

  • Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the main provider of mortgage insurance nationwide, signalled it may need a government bailout. 
  • Home sales in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto dropped in April. The Toronto area was hardest hit, down 67 per cent year over year. 
  • The independent asset-backed financing industry, which generally lends to small businesses that have difficulty accessing loans from banks, could be largely wiped out as borrowers struggle to pay back loans. 
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said making tech companies share advertising revenue with Canadian media companies is not a priority. His comments came after Canada’s largest newspapers issued a public call for financial support. 
  • OMERS Ventures invested in Ottawa work-from-home firm Tehama, its first new investment in Canada in almost two years. 
  • Paul Parisi is the new head of Silicon Valley Bank Canada. He took the job after over three years as president of PayPal Canada. 
  • The Ontario Securities Commission reported an uptick in pandemic-related scams.
  • Mississauga, Ont.-based PointClickCare, a software firm serving the senior care industry, has acquired Co-Pilot, which provides data analysis on rehospitalization.

Postcard from Sydney: It’s not quite 9 a.m., but Stephen Moore is already on his third call of the day. “I’m an early starter, given that I need to align with North American time zones,” he told The Logic. Moore is executive director for Australia and New Zealand at Ceridian, the Toronto-run HR software firm. He normally spends more than half his time on the road, but Australia closed its borders and banned most citizens from leaving the country in March. Moore let any expat employees who wanted to leave do so before it became impossible. He also stopped two or three who were due to arrive from coming. “I didn’t want them to be in a situation where … they were isolated and couldn’t get out,” he said. 

The company’s global leadership convenes every two or three days, typically after 4 p.m. in Toronto—6 a.m. in Sydney—so Moore can join. It’s easier to stay connected to North American colleagues, since they aren’t travelling, either. “If I’m starting at 6 a.m., and I’m still on calls at 7 p.m. to deal with local matters, it does stretch the working day,” Moore acknowledged. He schedules some “me time” in between, “because otherwise you’re just sitting in the same chair at the same desk looking at the same screen all day.”

Outside-the-home activities like cinema trips, golf rounds, kids’ sports or “going to the pub”—which Moore said “is kind of important in Australia”—stopped in the third week of March, and have not been restored. “We had some really good weather in Sydney, and people were breaking the rules by going to the beach,” said Moore. Australia now appears to have flattened its COVID-19 curve, or at least the first wave of infections, and some states have allowed limited social interaction to resume. Moore could soon have access to the whole of his Ceridian territory again. On Tuesday, the Australia and New Zealand governments agreed to set up a “trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone as soon as it is safe to do so.” The pandemic has slightly slowed Ceridian’s integration of Riteq, a local HR software firm it acquired in September 2019. But Moore said his plan is still to have “a significant number of Riteq customers converted to [Ceridian’s flagship platform] Dayforce going into 2021.”    

Drinking from the firehose: Kingsoft, a Chinese internet and software company, is spinning off its cloud division and preparing to take it public in the U.S. in an IPO that could value it at as much as US$3.8 billion. The company is among the few tech firms testing the public markets, as others choose to postpone IPO plans until some stability returns. 

  • Uber is considering leading a US$170-million investment in e-scooter company Lime at a 79 per cent discount to its former valuation. 
  • German digital bank N26, backed by Peter Thiel and Tencent, has raised US$100 million, topping up its Series D raise amid economic uncertainty due to the pandemic. 
  • Alphabet’s life-science unit Verily is struggling to meet expectations to help the U.S. speed up testing for COVID-19.
  • Apple issued its cheapest bonds since 2013 on Monday to help fund stock buybacks and dividend payments. 
  • Tesla’s stock value hit a six-month average of US$100.2 billion on Monday, triggering the vesting of some options for CEO Elon Musk to buy stock that could be worth US$700 million.  
  • More than 1,000 Wendy’s restaurants in the U.S. are out of beef, as meat-processing plants in the U.S. and Canada experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks grapple with closures and reduced output. 
  • Netflix has laid out a reopening plan for production, which includes daily temperature checks, boxed lunches and disposable makeup applicators.

Around the world: The White House is looking at disbanding its coronavirus task force. Hong Kong is set to relax its social-distancing measures this week after reporting no local coronavirus infections for more than two weeks. Saudi Arabia will allow private businesses to cut salaries by up to 40 per cent and possibly terminate employment contracts. Britain is considering cutting the proportion of workers’ wages it pays under its furlough scheme from 80 to 60 per cent. The country is holding post-Brexit trade negotiations with the United States by video conference today.

Researchers have proposed a “segmenting and shielding” exit strategy to the British government, which involves loosening restrictions for half of the population and tightening protection for those over 70 years of age. Russia recorded more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases for the third consecutive day on Tuesday, cementing its position as the world’s second-fastest-growing outbreak, after the U.S. Western Europe has been impacted much more by the virus than Eastern Europe; the difference is attributed largely to early lockdown enforcement. The Red Cross has launched a global network of social media influencers to battle misinformation about the coronavirus. 

“I never expected to come to the middle of the Arctic Ocean and have my daily life less restricted than it would back home”: An international team of scientists who have spent a year studying the warming of the Arctic from aboard a very large ship can’t return home due to cancelled flights.

* 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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