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COVID-19 roundup: Alphabet doubles down on WFH

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the keynote address of the Google I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif., in May 2019. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File
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It’s day 139 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 114,181 as of publication time, up 270 since yesterday—a 39 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 442 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Vietnam is evacuating 80,000 people from the central city of Danang after three coronavirus cases were detected—the first to be recorded in the country in 100 days.

Hey Google, find me an ergonomic chair: Alphabet staff won’t have to return to their offices en masse until at least July 2021, CEO Sundar Pichai said in a Monday memo. Outposts in 42 countries have already reopened, but in other places, like its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters, the company was forced to postpone an early July back-to-your-desks day to September as local COVID-19 caseloads rose.

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Pichai told staff the delayed return was to give workers more leeway to organize their lives, including planning for homeschooling in the fall and arranging new leases should they need to move, to cope with the extended uncertainty from the pandemic. “I hope this will offer the flexibility you need to balance work with taking care of yourselves and your loved ones over the next 12 months,” Pichai wrote. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also said that he expects half of his company’s employees to work remotely a decade from now. Twitter and Shopify have delivered similar messages. (The Logic, for those curious, will be working from home until the end of the year, at least.) 

As the pandemic continues, many tech companies have made working from home their policy for the foreseeable future, leading some to question whether it will be a permanent fixture of post-pandemic employment. Such a policy would benefit high-skilled workers, who could see an increase in disposable income, while others may be pushed into more precarious living conditions. Many executives are worried the setup is not sustainable in the long run, as productivity gains begin to decline and costs to keep everyone remote increase, while others are turning to innovative distanced solutions like whiteboards on a beach. 

Also in question is the state of offices, as business hubs in major cities become ghost towns. In February, Google Canada announced it would build three new offices in Waterloo, Toronto and Montreal by 2022. A spokesperson told The Logic Monday there was “nothing further to share right now with regards to Canada growth.”

While lessons are being learned on the go, governments continue to ask companies to keep their employees at home as a public health measure. Japan, for instance, is urging business leaders to help ramp up rates of telecommuting return to levels seen during an earlier state of emergency. “At one point, commuter numbers were down by 70 to 80%, but now it’s only about 30%,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said. “We really don’t want to backtrack on this.”

In the markets: The U.S. dollar fell to its lowest level since May 2018 as measured against its trading peers. Investors are concerned that rising Washington-Beijing tensions and skyrocketing U.S. coronavirus cases will hamper the country’s economic recovery. Alternative safe-haven assets are benefitting from the greenback’s fall, with the euro, Japanese yen, U.K. pound and silver all up. Gold hit an all-time intraday trading record of $1,941.90, building on Friday’s record-high settlement price. 

U.S. stocks, however, closed slightly up on news that orders for big-ticket items increased 7.3 per cent between May and June, ahead of the 5.4 per cent expected by economists. The TSX also closed up, propelled by the precious-metals-heavy materials sector. The Hang Seng Tech Index, which counts China’s two most valuable tech firms as members, debuted Monday. 

The Canadian dollar benefited from the greenback’s drop to reach 74.82 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. The Bank of Canada’s $10-billion corporate-bond purchasing program has spent just $133 million since its late-May launch. Interest in many of the bank’s emergency programs has dropped off, but they’re being kept open in case market instability increases again. 

“At the moment, there’s quite compelling evidence that the economy is flatlining”: Derek Halpenny, head of research at MUFG Bank made the comment as U.S. Federal Reserve officials warn that rising unemployment, bankruptcies and a fall in confidence measures are hampering the U.S. economy.

Trace me on my cellphone: Ottawa is in discussions with several provinces about participating in the national COVID Alert exposure-notification app, The Logic has learned, despite an almost month-long delay in the launch of an Ontario pilot run. The Canadian Digital Service, a federal agency, has been working with its Ontario counterpart and developers seconded from e-commerce giant Shopify to solve issues with the underlying Google and Apple technology and integrate local health systems, whose involvement is necessary for the app to be effective across the country.

Bay Street to Main Street: Canadian gold firms are taking advantage of all-time record high prices to bring in financing and push ahead with long-delayed development projects. There have been 49 equity raises by Canadian companies, compared with 53 for all of 2020, putting the sector on track for its best fundraising year in almost a decade. The gold-heavy materials sector now makes up 16 per cent of the TSX, about double its makeup in 2015. Gold isn’t the only Canadian mineral doing well today. Toronto-based Canada Nickel is looking into building a zero-carbon facility after Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he was seeking a firm to do so. The firm jumped 51.85 per cent on the news. 

  • Small Business Minister Mary Ng said she’s looking at how a $7-million program designed to help health-care startups can be applied to firms in other sectors.  
  • IBM launched a new free platform called SkillsBuild Reignite, which offers 7,000 courses in English and French to help Canadians looking to get jobs in web development, AI and cybersecurity.
  • Transat delayed the closing of its $720-million acquisition by Air Canada. Canadian and EU regulators are considering whether to approve the deal. 
  • Consumer confidence ticked up in a weekly poll conducted by Bloomberg, and has now made up more than half its losses since its record low rating in May. 
  • The CRA extended the tax-payment deadline from September 1 to September 30 for individual, corporate and trust income tax returns. 
  • Longshoremen at the Port of Montreal launched a four-day strike due to concerns about their working hours. 
  • Alternative lenders are doing poorly during the pandemic, while Canada’s self-storage industry is weathering it well. 

In the lab: The world’s biggest COVID-19 vaccine study started today with the first of 30,000 volunteers being injected with a shot developed by Moderna and the U.S. National Institutes of Health in a Phase 3 trial. Results are expected by fall. Experts believe the continuous growth of coronavirus cases in the U.S. will help speed up the process to prove if a vaccine works. Moderna received an additional US$472 million on Monday from the U.S. for its vaccine-development efforts. Meanwhile, the European Union is struggling to strike a vaccine-supply deal with Pfizer, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson, with tense discussions ongoing over price, payment methods and liability costs. The Philippines has asked China for help to get a vaccine. In Brazil, 5,000 health-care workers have received Oxford and AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate. The pandemic, however, may not end when a vaccine eventually arrives.

Around the world: Hong Kong has banned gatherings of more than two people, stopped people dining in restaurants and made face coverings mandatory in all public places after a resurgence in coronavirus cases. North Korea declared an emergency in a border town over a suspected case—the first to officially be acknowledged by authorities. European countries are bracing for a second wave, with Belgium warning the country could be put into a second “complete lockdown.” U.S. Republicans are preparing to announce a US$1-trillion coronavirus relief package, which will slash federal weekly unemployment benefits from US$600 to US$200.

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“Help people a little bit to bring their weight down”: That’s U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new strategy to ease the pressure on the public health system amid the pandemic; Johnson cited his own coronavirus-related hospitalization as a “wake-up call.”

* 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.

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