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COVID-19 roundup: Bracing for record job losses

People line up at a Service Canada office in Montreal in March 2020.
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It’s day 58 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 64,816 as of publication time, up 1,320 since yesterday—a 16 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases. On their respective 58th day, U.S. daily new cases were down six per cent from the seven-day prior average; the U.K. was up 31 per cent in daily new cases from the seven-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down 30 per cent.*

Another record rise in coronavirus infections has propelled Russia past Germany and France to the fifth-highest tally in the world. 

Another black Friday: Canada and the U.S. are widely expected to report record unemployment rates tomorrow. Economists are predicting job losses of at least four million in Canada, a fifth of the entire labour force, with some suggesting as many as 5.5 million people lost work last month. Tomorrow’s predicted drop is significantly worse than March’s one-million-person job loss, which was the largest one-month percentage drop since at least 1946. The numbers will also show how sectors that avoided widespread losses in March are faring. There are some signs employment is improving in May, with a number of provinces starting to reopen and some companies hiring back workers. 

The consensus economist prediction is that the U.S. is on track to report that 22 million people lost their jobs in April, pushing the unemployment rate to 16.1 per cent, the highest since records began in 1948, and well above the previous record of 10.8 per cent in late 1982. April’s numbers will come on top of the 701,000 losses reported in March, which was the first time the economy had lost more jobs than it gained since 2010. There are some signs that the rate of job losses is decelerating, with a report out today showing that U.S. jobless claims for the week ended May 2 hit 3.2 million, less than half the late-March peak of 6.9 million a week. 

Sidewalk Labs abandons Toronto’s Quayside project: The Google sister company announced Thursday that it will no longer pursue the Quayside project, citing “economic uncertainty.” Stephen Diamond, Waterfront Toronto board chair, said the move was not the outcome the agency had hoped for: “Waterfront Toronto offers thanks and appreciation to Sidewalk Labs for its vision, effort, and the many commitments that both the company and its employees have made to the future of Toronto.” The agency still plans to develop the Quayside neighbourhood without Sidewalk Labs, but did not offer details on what its next steps will look like. You can read a special report from The Logic on today’s announcement here

In the markets: All major U.S. indices rose by over 0.8 per cent on today’s U.S. jobs report. The TSX was up 0.02 per cent at close and the Canadian dollar hit 71.39 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. The uptick came despite tomorrow’s expected record low job numbers in both Canada and the U.S., as well as China already reporting a 14.2 per cent drop in imports—below the expected 11.2 per cent—and the Bank of England stating that Britain could be on track for its biggest economic slump in over 300 years. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink predicted things are going to get much worse for corporate America, with mass bankruptcies and tepid consumer demand, and a corporate tax rate jump of as much as eight per cent to fuel emergency spending.

“There is a big reset that’s occasioned by this crisis. The more consistent those policies are—and it doesn’t have to all be solved upfront—the more the private sector is going to anticipate their direction”: Mark Carney, who left the Bank of England in March and is currently a climate finance envoy for the United Nations, urged governments to keep climate policies in mind in their coronavirus recovery plans. 

4,400: That’s the number of applications received between April 22 and 29 for the $250-million Industrial Research Assistance Program Innovation Assistance Program, which will pay out $847 per employee per week in grants for tech firms shut out of other COVID-19 support initiatives. Applications are currently being reviewed; the successful firms will be notified starting next week. 

Trace me on my cellphone: An official with the Alberta government told The Logic it contracted Deloitte Canada to develop a contact-tracing app after Singapore made the source code for its TraceTogether application free to other countries. Deloitte also wrote communications and training material for the app, as well as helping with testing and its privacy impact statement, and ensured it was integrated with Alberta Health’s infrastructure, among other work. The app has been downloaded 130,000 times so far. 

Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners issued a joint statement Thursday on concerns with digital contact tracing. The U.K.’s information commissioner said her office has not received a data protection impact assessment of the government’s app, legally required for anyone conducting a “high risk” data project. Here’s a profile of Matthew Gould, the man in charge of creating the U.K.’s contact-tracing app, available for the Isle of Wight’s 140,000 residents to download and test today. 

A group of European nations want to create a unified approach to the technology. Colombia has removed the feature from its app, now looking to rebuild using Apple and Google’s model. India will roll out a version of its app for Reliance’s Jio phones to reach more people.

In the lab: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency approval to a new coronavirus test designed by Sherlock Biosciences that uses the genome-editing tool CRISPR. Moderna—the first company in the U.S. allowed to begin a human trial for a vaccine—was also given a green light to begin the second phase of trials. The company, which has never brought a product to market, said the first batches of the vaccine are expected to be ready in July, with the aim of making up to one billion doses a year.

Cross-country checkup: The federal government has reached a $4-billion deal with the provinces and territories to increase essential workers’ pay. Ottawa will kick in $3 billion, but the lower-level governments will decide who qualifies in their regions. So far, Ontario is offering a $4 hourly increase for many medical staff; Saskatchewan is giving an extra $400 per month for staff working with vulnerable populations and making less than $2,500 monthly; and Quebec is offering an extra $4 an hour for staff in private long-term care homes. Meanwhile, B.C. and P.E.I. offered more details on their reopening plans. B.C. is permitting gatherings of up to six people in time for the long weekend, opening provincial parks and allowing elective surgeries in mid-May, and planning to have schools open to most students by September. The province hopes to resume about 60 per cent of normal activities while avoiding an uptick in infections. P.E.I.’s four-step second-phase plan will have businesses work with industry associations to coordinate sector-specific reopening guidelines. It will allow groups of up to five, and is requiring all people entering the island to isolate for 14 days. Quebec has delayed the reopening of its schools and daycares to May 25.

Bay Street to Main Street:

  • Telus and Bell both withdrew financial guidance for the year after the former reported a net income drop of nearly 20 per cent in the first quarter and the latter reported a 6.1 per cent decline in adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Bell also said its initial 5G network is ready, but it’s not planning to launch it right now.
  • Bombardier has asked governments for financial support in the event of a prolonged pandemic-related slump in sales. The firm reported an adjusted first-quarter loss of US$169 million, compared with US$122 million the year prior. 
  • Enbridge reported a first-quarter loss along with plans to defer $1 billion in capital spending and to cut costs by $300 million as it seeks to weather the global supply glut. 
  • Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management plans to invest $5 billion by taking minority stakes in retail firms struggling due to the pandemic. 
  • Manulife Financial reported first-quarter net income dropped 41 per cent to $1.25 billion. The news comes one day after Sun Life reported a similar first-quarter dropoff.
  • Spin Master reported a net loss of US$26.7 million in the first quarter as it faces supply chain problems related to the pandemic. 
  • Montreal-based footwear retailer the Aldo Group and Alberta-based oil field supplier JMB Crushing Systems have filed for creditor protection. 
  • Walmart customers are being charged for missing items and orders that never arrive. Walmart Canada said it’s hired around 300 new customer service staff to respond to customer inquiries. 
  • New vehicle sales dropped 75 per cent in April, well ahead of the previous record drop of 28 per cent in February 2009 during that financial crisis.
  • Greyhound Canada is temporarily suspending all routes, citing plummeting ridership.
  • Customer satisfaction with banks’ mobile offerings has declined “significantly” amid the pandemic, according to a study from J.D. Power. 
  • OneEleven asked startups looking to leave the incubator to pay for April and May rent, then retracted the request; it had previously said rent for those months would be abated.
  • Ron McKinnon, the Liberal MP chairing the parliamentary health committee, is sponsoring a petition based on the widely discredited idea that cellphone towers can cause cancer in children. It comes as two people were arrested after seven fires were set at cell towers in acts of vandalism believed to have been prompted by conspiracy theories.
  • Grocery Neighbour plans to launch 1,000 trucks nationwide retrofitted with shelves and refrigerated sections. The firm plans to start with three trucks in Toronto.
  • About seven in 10 Ontario restaurants are concerned they won’t have the money to cover three months of expenses, according to a survey from Restaurants Canada, which is asking the provincial government for aid for the industry. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Founders can book 15- to 30-minute calls with venture capitalists from Brightspark Ventures, Ferst Capital Partners, Luge Capital, Mistral Venture Partners and Panache Ventures through a new initiative called VCHours. Collision from Home has launched an initiative giving 1,000 Toronto jobseekers free access to its online event. Applicants can apply here. Give5 is a campaign for Canadian foundations to pledge at least 5 per cent of their assets to the charitable sector during COVID-19; 60 foundations have signed up so far, pledging a cumulative $5 billion in assets.

The grand reopening: New Zealand could allow hairdressers and bars to reopen, and permit competitive sport as well as domestic travel, from next week; residents would still need to maintain social distance outside the homes and log their movements. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote a 17-page report with reopening guidelines for local authorities and business owners; the White House decided not to release it as scheduled last Friday. France will begin lifting restrictions on Monday, with one million students returning to school, but some badly affected areas, including Paris, will have stricter measures for longer. Norway will reopen all high schools, along with bars and restaurants, by mid-June. Greece’s culture ministry is reopening the Acropolis on May 18, and will let visitors back into museums in mid-June.

Drinking from the firehose: The International Air Transport Association, which speaks for most passenger flights in the air, said fares in the Asia-Pacific region could increase 54 per cent if they’re required to leave middle seats empty to increase the distance between travellers. 

  • U.S. Democratic leaders said they’ll soon unveil a “Rooseveltian” coronavirus relief package on top of the almost US$3 trillion in aid passed by Congress in the past two months.
  • Bankers’ groups say small businesses believe the loans they received under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) will be forgiven, but may not have known about or abided by its complex write-off eligibility rules.
  • Zumasys, a California-based tech startup, is suing the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Treasury Department over guidance requiring PPP applicants to attest that the credit was “necessary,” issued after the firm received its loan. 
  • Zoom Video Communications, which the pandemic has turned into a teleconferencing giant, is acquiring encryption company Keybase; the deal comes after some organizations banned the use of the tool over security and privacy issues. 
  • Chinese exports rose 3.5 per cent in April, after a 6.6 per cent decline the previous month. 
  • Neiman Marcus, the high-end department store chain, has filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Enterprise Zoom competitor Pexip hopes to raise US$230 million next week in what would be Scandinavia’s largest-ever IPO.
  • Peloton’s revenues rose to US$524.6 million in the last quarter, up 66 per cent year over year. 
  • Grubhub posted first-quarter sales of US$363 million, beating analysts’ expectations and up 12 per cent from 2019; its active diner count rose to 24 million.
  • Square lost US$106 million in the first three months of the year, more than thrice analysts’ US$34-million estimate.
  • U.S. transit agencies in five states are subsidizing Uber rides for passholders or trips to and from essential workplaces after suspending or cutting back routes due to COVID-19.
  • Nintendo has stopped talking about upcoming game releases for its Switch console since the pandemic began; industry experts and analysts say it doesn’t have any blockbusters in the works.
  • Facebook will let most employees work from home until the end of the year.

Around the world: A group of U.S. business and education organizations is asking Congress to allocate funding to keep child-care centres open, as some employers recall workers but schools and many daycares remain closed. A landmark two-year basic-income study conducted in Finland found that participants’ mental wellbeing was improved, but they were not any more likely to land a job. France is using AI technology to check if people are wearing masks on public transit. Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, a public health research agency, is cancelling its regular media briefing; an official said the country has “substantially pushed the virus back” and must now “learn to live with the virus and control it.” Low-wage migrant workers in Qatar, among whom the country’s high rate of COVID-19 cases is concentrated, have been forced to beg for food after losing their jobs. Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s section of the Amazon, is short on medicine, personal protective equipment and oxygen, which must be delivered by air.

Back to Middle Earth: Andy Serkis, who voiced Gollum in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, will be reading The Hobbit in a live marathon for charity tomorrow. 

* 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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