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COVID-19 roundup: Canadians turn to retail therapy

Shoppers walk through Carrefour Laval shopping center as malls across Quebec reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Laval, Que. in June 2020. The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz
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It’s day 133 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 111,528 as of publication time, up 404 since yesterday—a 4.7 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 424.1 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Some 537 startups worldwide have laid off a total of over 71,500 people since March 11, the day the pandemic was declared, according to tracking website Layoffs.fyi. 

Back to buying: Retail sales in Canada are almost back to their pre-pandemic peak, Statistics Canada data released Tuesday suggests. The sector posted an 18.7 per cent increase in May, as provinces allowed businesses to start reopening following COVID-19 lockdowns. The agency estimates a further 24.5 per cent jump in June, which would bring sales up to $52 billion, above January levels and just below the all-time high in February.

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Private-sector economists attributed the pop to pent-up demand and financial measures designed to help workers through the pandemic. “The strongest gains [were] in categories where the lockdown measures were most extensive (clothing) or which had limited ability to shift sales online (autos),” noted TD Bank’s Ksenia Bushmeneva. Food and beverage retail dropped two per cent, the only subsector to go negative, but that followed significant gains in March, when most consumers were still restricting their out-of-home excursions to the grocery store. 

Some economists cautioned that the upward trajectory might flatten over time. “This initial rebound was likely fueled by substantial government income support measures, and there is still a risk that those measures expire before labour markets are fully recovered,” RBC economist Claire Fan wrote in a note. And the “the economy can’t fully bounce back” as long as physical restrictions continue, said CIBC’s Royce Mendes.

Consumers are also buying differently than before the pandemic. “If you have witnessed delivery trucks aplenty flying down streets or tried to buy something only to find that it’s out of stock then you have experienced first-hand what’s going on here,” noted Scotiabank’s Derek Holt. Canadian retailers e-commerce sales were up 112.7 per cent in May compared to 2019, and that doesn’t account for foreign platforms and marketplaces that sell within the country. Online’s share of retail sales rose from 3.13 per cent last year to 8.33 per cent two months ago, unadjusted. 

In the markets: European, Asian and most major U.S. stock indices closed up after European leaders reached a deal on a €750-billion recovery fund after five days of negotiations. Investors moved quickly to buy up debt from European nations that were particularly hard hit during the pandemic, and the euro reached $1.151, its highest level against the U.S. dollar since January 2019. 

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, rose 2.3 per cent, pushing it above US$42 for the first time since March. The oil price, combined with an 18.7 per cent rise in retail sales between April and May, pushed the Canadian dollar to a more than five-week high against its US counterpart, reaching 74.30 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. The TSX closed down 0.13 per cent. 

The White House and Senate Republicans are negotiating the details around a proposed US$1-trillion payroll-tax cut. Gold prices continued to climb and silver hit a six-year high as investors look for hedges against potential inflation amid all the government stimulus. 

“When you reach the end of this email, you will notice something different. I have no job title. And from this moment onwards, nor do you”: After some pandemic-inspired reflection on his business and its culture,, Mohamed Alabbar, founder and chairman of Dubai-based developer Emaar Properties, said he wants the company “to focus on talent, not titles.” He signed the memo as “Mohamed Alabbar, Bu Rashid,” which, in Arabic, translates to “the father of Rashid Alabbar.”

Uber sharing contact-tracing data in Canada: Ten Canadian public health units have made a total of 145 requests for data from Uber since the ride-hailing giant launched a tool last week that lets health officials quickly access personal information on riders and drivers who may have come in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Uber would not disclose which health units have requested the data. The Logic contacted health authorities in every Canadian market in which Uber operates; York Region Public Health in the Greater Toronto Area was the only unit to confirm it has used Uber data for contact tracing. “To date, Public Health has worked with Uber on four occasions on contact tracing,” said communications director Patrick Casey. 

While government partnerships with tech firms for COVID-19 contact tracing have invited criticism around possible privacy violations, privacy expert Ann Cavoukian said the Uber tool is particularly concerning. Unlike apps based on the Google and Apple contact-tracing API, for example, Uber doesn’t require users to voluntarily opt in to having their data shared with health officials—anyone who uses the app could have their information shared if a health authority requests it. Uber said it explains this on its website and notifies users whose information health authorities have requested. But Cavoukian said that isn’t sufficient. “I think if the public was fully aware of this Uber would lose a lot of business,” she said. 

Trace me on my cellphone: Alberta’s privacy commissioner Jill Clayton said it was “disappointing” that Apple has stopped working with Alberta Health to solve a security risk in the ABTraceTogether app: iPhones need to be unlocked for the app, which uses Bluetooth but not the Google-Apple API, to work effectively. In a conversation with “Law Bytes,” a podcast hosted by Michael Geist, Clayton said there was “lots going on in the background” in the form of discussions on the federal and provincial levels about their work with the tech giants. “I would like to see the solution in place to protect Albertans from that risk,” she said. Clayton did praise Alberta Health’s app for “supplementing the important work human contact tracers do” and not “overselling what it was supposed to accomplish.” She added that it was too soon to assess its effectiveness, but expressed concern that officials had “not thought very much about how they would decommission the app in the rush to get it deployed.” Listen to the full conversation here.

Meanwhile, South Korea, which released the latest version of its quarantine app last week, has fixed technical glitches that exposed the personal information of users, including names, real-time locations and more. According to one official, the issues came from a rush to launch: “We could not afford a time-consuming security check on the app that would delay its deployment.” Ireland donated the code for its contact-tracing app to the Linux Foundation to allow other countries to build their own apps.

Cross-country checkup: The Precision Information Team, a five-person unit within the Canadian military, collected data from Ontarians’ social media accounts, claiming it was to help troops in their response to the COVID-19 crisis inside long-term care facilities. The information, which the team handed to the Ontario government, included comments on the provincial government’s failure to take care of the elderly. Military sources who spoke to the Ottawa Citizen raised concern about the data-mining tactics; the Canadian Forces defended the practice, saying the team only collected publicly available information. Most of Alberta and Saskatchewan is moving forward with plans for Stage 3 reopening by the end of the week, despite now having more COVID-19 cases per capita than Ontario, which saw new daily cases surpass 200 for the first time in over three weeks. Increasing demand for COVID-19 tests in Alberta is overwhelming the province’s public health units. New cases in B.C. are also on the rise, after flattening its curve and reopening much of its economy well before other provinces. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Canadian businesses moved slower than their global competitors to react to the pandemic, according to a survey from HSBC. Twenty-two per cent of Canadian firms diversified their supply chains due to the pandemic, compared with 29 per cent of global firms. Similarly, 85 per cent of Canadian business leaders said they were at least somewhat prepared for the pandemic, compared with 92 per cent of leaders globally. 

Over the next two years, 70 per cent of Canadian businesses said they’d introduce or expand work-from-home arrangements. That roughly lines up with the results from a survey conducted by Citrix, a tech company that sells work-from-home software, which found that 55 per cent of Canadian workers want to work from home more frequently. 

  • The Ontario Securities Commission approved a settlement with Coinsquare in which the firm’s CEO Cole Diamond and its president Virgile Rostand, agreed to pay substantial fines and leave the company. 
  • Mendocino, a Toronto-based fashion retailer, will close “all or substantially all” of its 28 Canadian stores as part of a pivot to online sales during its restructuring process. 
  • IBM signed a multimillion-dollar cloud deal with Celero, which provides technology support for 110 Canadian credit unions. IBM reported an adjusted earnings drop of 31 per cent in the second quarter, beating analyst expectations partially due to the strength of its cloud division. 
  • Markham, Ont.-based firm Scarsin has developed a forecasting model designed to help manage a second wave of the coronavirus. 
  • Rogers is trying to stop people from cancelling their cable subscriptions with a $5-per-month voice-activated service called SmartStream to help them find TV shows. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Honeycomb Hospitality, a Toronto-based company that includes the owners and operators of Dasha, Petty Cash and Baro, has launched Project Safety Box, an e-commerce platform that sells packages of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, surface sanitizer and immune boosters. 

In the lab: Four out of the five pharmaceutical executives who testified before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce panel today said they were on track to produce a vaccine by the end of the year or early 2021, while fully abiding by regulatory requirements. Only Dr. Julie Gerberding, Merck’s executive vice-president and chief patient officer, said the company would not rush the process. “We do not expect to be able to accelerate the safety assessment,” she said. Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors have accused two Chinese nationals, said to be working for state intelligence, for their alleged involvement in a decade-plus-long global IP-stealing operation that targeted hundreds of companies, including several U.S. firms developing COVID-19 vaccines.

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Most Big Tech firms have scaled back their lobbying efforts during the pandemic. TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is an exception: it increased its lobbying spend by over 66 per cent in the second quarter of the year. 
  • The Consumer Technology Association is predicting a 2.2 per cent revenue drop across hardware and services; it will be the first contraction in the consumer tech space in more than a decade. 
  • Startups in the risk-management and security space are attracting venture capital, as the rise of remote work heightens cybersecurity risks. 
  • LinkedIn is cutting 960 workers, about six per cent of its staff, as the pandemic-induced drop in recruitment persists. 
  • A federal judge has postponed the trial of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes due to the pandemic; no dates have been set. 
  • Out-migration from Indian cities to rural communities during the pandemic has left factories in urban areas struggling to find workers. 
  • Coca-Cola sales saw their biggest quarterly drop in at least 25 years, as fewer people eat and drink out at restaurants, cinemas and stadiums, which previously made up about half of the company’s sales.

Around the world: Nearly one in four residents in Delhi has been exposed to COVID-19, according to antibody tests on a random sample of people, a rate exceeding that of any other major global city. Almost a million public-sector workers in the U.K, including doctors, teachers and police officers, will be given salary increases. The largest teachers’ union in Florida is suing to block an emergency order requiring schools to fully reopen next month, arguing the decision is “reckless” and “unconstitutional”; the state has reported more than 10,000 daily cases for six consecutive days. Medicare, the U.S. federal health insurance program, is running out of money, while a top Republican said Congress will wait until August to pass its second round of economic stimulus. According to Time, “summer movie season is canceled for the first time since Jaws became the first warm-weather blockbuster in 1975.” The Nobel prize banquet has also been cancelled for the first time in over 50 years.

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Guard down: For the first time in their 535-year history, the Beefeaters of the Tower of London are facing job cuts.

* 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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