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COVID-19 roundup: CERB extension

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removes his face mask as he prepares to deliver a commencement speech during an event in Ottawa, Wednesday June 10, 2020. The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld
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It’s day 97 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 99,073 as of publication time, up 286 since yesterday—a 28 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases.*

“Home to just [eight] per cent of the global population, Latin America is now suffering half the world’s new coronavirus deaths,” The Financial Times reports.

The taps are staying on: Ottawa will extend the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for “people who can’t return to work yet,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday. The program—which gives $2,000-a-month direct payments to those who have lost most or all of their income during the pandemic—currently has a 16-week cap, meaning people who started using it in mid-March will run out early next month. Trudeau didn’t say how long the measure would continue, or how eligibility criteria would change; he promised “more details later this week.”

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Ottawa paid out $43.5 billion in CERB to 8.41 million applicants as of early June, compared to $10.5 billion in salary assistance for about 2.2 million workers via the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). The federal government has hiked its expected spending on the former by $25 billion and reduced its projections for latter by $28 billion following lower-than-expected uptake. It’s still trying to get workers back on payrolls. “To all employers: please use the wage subsidy if you haven’t already,” Trudeau said Monday. Last week, the parliamentary budget officer estimated it would cost Ottawa $57.8 billion to extend the CERB in its current form through the end of January 2021.  

As of Friday, companies with less than $20,000 in 2019 payroll will become eligible for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), if they can show non-deferrable expenses of between $40,000 and $1.5 million on items like rent, property taxes and insurance. Financial institutions administer the $40,000 partially forgivable loans. Firms that paid their workers as contractors or through dividends as well as owner-operators haven’t been able to use the program because of the salary-expense requirement; Trudeau announced the changes a month ago, and they take effect this week.

In the markets: All major North American indices closed up, despite growing concerns China is being hit by a second COVID-19 wave and a spike in new cases in many U.S. states. The Dow Jones dropped more than 600 points in early trading before rallying on a surge of stock pickers looking to buy technology, communication and industrial firms at depressed prices. The Canadian dollar rose 0.13 per cent in late afternoon trading to reach 73.67 cents U.S.

Consumer confidence rose for the seventh straight week in Canada, hitting 42.86. The index averaged 57 points in the year pre-pandemic. An OPEC+ meeting next week will reportedly not decide whether to extend oil supply cuts, meaning further negotiations will be needed to keep supply low and raise prices. BP is taking an up-to US$17.5 billion writedown as it expects oil prices to stay low. 

China’s main economic problem is a lack of demand, according to one analyst. Germany is predicting its economy will contract more in the second quarter of 2020 than the first. 

“This is the real first world war. The other world wars were localized in [some] continents with very little participation from other continents . . . but this affects everyone”: Ecuador has the highest per-capita COVID-19 death toll in the developing world. President Lenin Moreno admitted official figures understated the severity of the virus’s impact; he is in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.S., as well as renegotiating loans from China. 

Cross-country checkup: All regions of Ontario except Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex will be in Stage 2 of the province’s phased reopening plan as of Friday. Quebec will allow indoor gatherings of up to 50 people starting June 22. There are three new cases in New Brunswick, two of which are temporary foreign workers. It’s been almost seven weeks since P.E.I. last announced a new case of COVID-19.

Bay Street to Main Street: Nationwide home sales increased 56.9 per cent between April and May, but remain at record low levels. In May, newly listed properties dropped 38.1 per cent year over year and overall sales declined 39.8 per cent, reaching the lowest May level since 1996. The average sale price is down 2.6 per cent nationwide; prices in certain markets are up significantly as constrained supply leads to higher prices. “In Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton, prices appear to have been able to continue climbing albeit at a slower pace,” according to the Canadian Real Estate Association, which compiled the data. By contrast, Alberta and British Columbia prices are trending down. 

  • Ivanhoé Cambridge, a $64-billion real estate firm, wants to reduce its stake in retail malls and increase its residential and industrial real estate holdings. 
  • Nationwide manufacturing sales dropped 28.5 per cent to $36.4 billion in April. The drop affected all industries, with transportation equipment and petroleum and coal-product industries particularly hard hit. 
  • WestJet will more than double its flights in July compared to June, but its offerings are still down about 76 per cent year over year. 
  • Some Manitoba tenants and landlords say the federal government’s commercial rent assistance program wasn’t designed for the Prairies and needs to be rejigged. 
  • Hostile takeovers could increase in Canada after over a decade of decline, according to a report from law firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg. 
  • Cineplex will reopen six movie theatres in Alberta on June 26, and then as many of its 164 locations nationwide as governments will allow on July 3. The move comes as it’s embroiled in legal action with Cineworld, which pulled out of an acquisition attempt that would have created the largest movie-theatre chain in North America. 
  • The Rogers family is donating $60 million to charities helping Canadians weather the economic fallout from COVID-19. 
  • Paramount Fine Foods is opening what it calls “Canada’s first fully automated restaurant” in Toronto this summer. Customers can order online or via mobile kiosks at Box’d, and then follow a “digital status board” to pick up their order. 

In the lab: Germany will take a 23 per cent stake in CureVac, a German biotech firm that is working on a COVID-19 vaccine. The government said it won’t have any influence on the company’s business decisions. The announcement comes as AstraZeneca struck a deal with a vaccine alliance formed by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands to supply up to 400 million doses of its vaccine. Maryland-based Novavax is looking to raise new capital through a US$200-million stock offering. Moderna is heading to Chicago for the next stage of its trial, which will begin July 9, for which it is calling for 30,000 volunteers. Meanwhile China’s Sinovac Biotech is reporting positive results in its trial: more than 90 per cent of the 600 volunteers tested showed an immune response 14 days after vaccination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering approving a vaccine that prevents illness, as opposed to boosting immunity.

U.S. scientists have found evidence that the virus could infect human brain cells and replicate there. Early studies into the transmission of the virus suggests that 20 per cent of people are responsible for 80 per cent of COVID-19 spread. Anti-vaccine messages have tripled since the pandemic began; one public health non-proft has created online surveillance tools to track them, and is launching a vaccine advocacy campaign called Stronger.   

Trace me on my cellphone: The Norwegian Data Protection Authority has forced the Norwegian Institute of Public Health to delete all data gathered via its contact-tracing app Smittestopp, and suspend its usage after finding major breaches of privacy, consent and accuracy. The centralized app tracked real-time GPS location data. As of June 3, the app, one of the first to be released globally, had been downloaded 1.6 million times, and had around 600,000 active users, or just over 10 per cent of the country’s population. It’s reportedly considering switching to a design backed by Apple and Google. This is the first reported instance of a public health-sanctioned contact-tracing app being suspended. Meanwhile, Germany will release its app tomorrow. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Investigators with the New York attorney general’s office have interviewed workers at several Amazon warehouses in New York City as part of a wide-ranging probe into the retail giant’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Goldman Sachs contributed an additional US$250 million to fund the U.S. small-business loan program.
  • BlackRock has delivered approximately €16 billion to 810 European companies since the end of January, over half of which were struggling during the pandemic.
  • Unilever has created a €1-billion Climate & Nature Fund to invest in environmental projects over the next decade. 
  • EU commissioner Margrete Vestager announced relaxed rules to unlock financial relief for startups.
  • Ikea said it will repay nine governments that have helped provide salaries to its workers while they were furloughed.
  • China’s industrial robot sales fell by a fifth in the first quarter from a year earlier, causing concerns about its future. 

White House walks back transparency pledge: Economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNN the government will not be releasing the names of small businesses that received relief loans; he denied that promise “was ever made” and said it wasn’t necessary. House Democrats are demanding that the CEOs of America’s big banks disclose their records about the small-business loan program to ensure the remaining funds “are allocated to businesses truly in need.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin responded that he would discuss a balance for “proper oversight” of the loans and “protection of small business information.” 

The government’s COVID-19 unemployment benefit is set to end in July. Without offering specifics, Kudlow proposed instead “a reform measure that will still provide some kind of bonus for returning to work.” Meanwhile, British MPs are pressuring the Treasury to extend its income-support program to a million workers who have been left out, including the newly employed, self-employed and short-term-contract workers.

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The grand reopening: Nearly 20,000 rugby fans packed into a New Zealand stadium for a Saturday match free of social-distancing protocols. Parts of Beijing have been locked down again after over 100 new COVID-19 cases. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has threatened to reverse reopening in parts of the state that aren’t following or enforcing coronavirus safety rules, as several U.S. states reported record increases in new cases. Finland’s state of emergency ends tonight; the government is withdrawing the emergency powers it adopted in March. Shops across England reopened today, though the World Health Organization warned the U.K. is lifting its lockdown too quickly. France reopened schools without social-distancing measures. Almost 11,000 Germans will arrive in the Balearic islands today as part of a pilot to help Spain revive its tourism sector. Three weeks after declaring it was coronavirus-free, Montenegro reported one new COVID-19 case. Travel resumes across the European Union today; here are the guidelines.

A not-so-sweet life: Demand for sugar is set to fall for the first time in four decades because of pandemic lockdowns.

* 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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