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COVID-19 roundup: CERB-side pickup extended

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during his daily news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic outside his residence at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, on Saturday, May 16, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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It’s day 98 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 99,426 as of publication time, up 279 since yesterday—a 26 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 375 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

People under 20 are half as likely to get COVID-19, according to new research that used data from 32 countries including Canada, China, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Eight more weeks of CERB: Ottawa is extending the eligibility period for its $2,000-a-month direct payments to workers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday. But it will also modify the application process to inform those using the program that they should be trying to find work. The Liberal government’s latest emergency legislation, which stalled in the House of Commons last week, would have denied the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to applicants who “decline a reasonable job offer when they are able to work” or didn’t return to their existing jobs when their employer asked. Despite that attempt, Trudeau’s own comments Tuesday suggested there may not be many such cases. “Even as our economy is reopening, there are many more people out of work willing to work than there are jobs available,” he said, noting the program will be updated based on “international best practices” and “the progression of the virus.”

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In the markets: The Nasdaq, Dow Jones and S&P 500 closed up around two per cent on news that U.S. retail sales jumped 17.7 per cent in May and a report that the country is considering a US$1-trillion infrastructure spending package. The retail sale jump is the largest monthly increase since at least 1992. The TSX closed up 1.02 per cent on news that foreign investors purchased $49 billion of Canadian securities in April, the largest monthly amount on record. The oil-heavy index’s rise was also buoyed by an International Energy Agency report that world crude demand would rebound by 5.7 million barrels a day in 2021. The Canadian dollar rose to 73.73 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. 

The Bank of Japan promised US$1 trillion in COVID-19 loans. Fabio Panetta, executive director of the European Central Bank, said the bank would consider further bond buying “if necessary.” Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned the U.S. Senate Banking Committee that although there have been recent signs of economic improvement, high unemployment and business failures are still a risk. “Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely,” said Powell. “If not contained and reversed, the downturn could further widen gaps in economic well-being that the long expansion had made some progress in closing,” said Powell. IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath said there’s “profound uncertainty” about global economic recovery, and warned that the fund would likely downgrade its current estimate of a three per cent drop in global gross domestic output. 

Most investors appeared to agree with Gopinath, with nearly 80 per cent believing global stocks are “overvalued,” the highest level in records dating back to 1998, according to a survey by Bank of America. Investors have put US$4.6 trillion in money-market funds, a vehicle for holding cash. That’s the highest level out of records dating back to 1992; other measures of cash reserves, like bank deposits, are also high. 

“Coronavirus is constantly attacking society’s vulnerable classes and spaces. We must shake off the fantasy that we can go back to the past we were accustomed to”: Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, warned that governments should learn from South Korea’s mistakes and remain vigilant and flexible even as cases decrease. 

Cross-country checkup: Mexico is holding back as many as 5,000 seasonal workers from entering Canada after two Mexican workers died on Ontario farms and as the industry struggles to get COVID-19 outbreaks under control. B.C.’s top doctor says there are no cases of COVID-19 connected to schools, two weeks after reopening. Quebec’s plan to fully reinstate classroom learning in the fall includes clustering students in groups of six; physical distancing is required between groups, but not within them. Physical attendance will be mandatory except in special cases. The Toronto Transit Commission will distribute one million free face masks starting July 2 when wearing face coverings on the city’s subways, buses and streetcars will be mandatory. Nova Scotia marks one week without any new COVID-19 cases; there are just two known active cases in the province. 

How to stay relevant if you’re a tech accelerator: With their members still working remotely, tech accelerators are adopting new roles in an effort to remain useful for growing startups. Some reported an increase in demand for one-on-one coaching, while others have tried to recreate their events online so they can still help create “natural collisions” between founders and investors and customers. The Logic spoke to five accelerators, who said they have transformed into a hub for companies to get advice on reinventing business models and government relief funding to help companies survive the pandemic.

Bay Street to Main Street: An increase in gender diversity among firm owners leads to more revenue and a greater number of employees, according to a Statistics Canada study. Despite that, women-owned enterprises tend to have worse economic performance overall than those owned by men. Just 6.8 per cent of women-owned businesses have revenue in excess of $500,000, compared to 10.3 per cent of men-owned enterprises. This is partially due to men being more likely than women to own an unincorporated business before owning an incorporated one, and more likely to have worked in the same companies as their co-owners. 

  • China said it found pests in Canadian logs, raising concerns from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce that Beijing is using trade to push its political goals. Ottawa is investigating the Chinese complaint. 
  • Domestic leisure flights are up, but it will take at least three years for Air Canada to see 2019 travel levels, according to CFO Michael Rousseau. 
  • A parliamentary committee may ask executives from Loblaw, Metro and Empire to explain their simultaneous pay cuts for frontline grocery-store workers. 
  • DavidsTea has not paid rent on any of its stores in three months, and is looking at restructuring the firm depending on landlord negotiations. 
  • Nationwide consumer debt dropped for the first time in more than a decade as Canadians reduce their credit-card use, according to Equifax Canada. 
  • Vancouver-based Victory Square Health acquired a COVID-19 antibody test from a Brazilian firm. 
  • The Société de transport de Laval launched a tool showing how crowded a bus should be. The Quebec-based transportation authority said the tool is the first in Canada. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Intuit QuickBooks has launched an AI-powered Cash Flow Planner tool to help small businesses manage their funds. 

In the lab: An Oxford University drug trial revealed that low doses of dexamethasone, a cheap, widely available steroid, reduced the risk of death in severely ill COVID-19 patients. This would be the first treatment with the potential to save lives, with scientists describing it as “a major breakthrough.” 

AstraZeneca’s potential coronavirus vaccine is likely to protect against COVID-19 for “about a year,” the company’s CEO said. Royalty Pharma, which buys biopharmaceutical royalties, raised US$2.2 billion from its IPO—the biggest in the U.S. so far this year. It’s part of a wave of public offerings. French drugmaker Sanofi will spend €610 million on a new vaccine-manufacturing facility. The U.S. government will reportedly provide free vaccines to vulnerable Americans who can’t afford one; the government is readying to narrow its financial support to seven of the 14 vaccines it has identified as leading contenders. 

Scientists are still struggling to understand how deadly the coronavirus is, and are hesitant to give an infection fatality rate. It’s a Goldilocks problem: if they calculate one that’s too low, “a community could underreact, and be unprepared,” whereas if they calculate one that’s too high, “the overreaction could be at best expensive, and at worst [could] also add harms from the overuse of interventions like lockdowns.” Scientists have also found that flushing a toilet can create a large plume that can potentially spread coronavirus particles to a bathroom’s next visitor. Their advice: “Close the lid first and then trigger the flushing process.”

Trace me on my cellphone: Germany launched its tracing app today, and urged residents to download it. According to The Guardian, the voluntary app, which uses Apple and Google’s technology, had been downloaded more than one million times by Tuesday afternoon. Elsewhere, France’s app may not be able to connect with others across the European Union because it stores data centrally, EU Commission vice-president Margrethe Vestager said.

Amnesty International warned that the contact-tracing apps of Bahrain, Kuwait and Norway were among the “most dangerous for privacy.” While Norway’s app was forced to shut down by its data regulator yesterday, Bahrain and Kuwait’s apps continue to collect location data through GPS in real time—or close to it—in a central database. According to Amnesty’s researchers, Bahraini and Kuwaiti authorities could link that personal information to an individual, as users are required to register with a national ID number. A spokesperson for Bahrain’s government told the BBC that usage of the app was voluntary, and that it played “a vital role” in keeping its death rate at 0.24 per cent. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Global hotel chain Hilton Worldwide Holdings is cutting 22 per cent of its corporate workforce, about 2,100 employees, as the pandemic continues to hurt the travel industry.
  • Las Vegas Sands, a casino operator, will test “smart rings” from Finnish wearable firm Oura, which claims the finger-worn devices can detect COVID-19 days before symptoms appear. 
  • Food-delivery company Deliveroo has joined major restaurant chains in the U.K. in a plea to Prime Minister Boris Johnson for support to prevent further mass closures in the industry. 
  • 24 Hour Fitness has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The San Ramon, Calif.-based gym chain—owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and private equity firm AEA Investors—plans to permanently close 135 of its 445 gyms across the U.S. 
  • The United Nations is forecasting a 40 per cent drop in overseas investment this year and as much as 10 per cent next year. 
  • The world’s largest ad buyer predicts advertising spending will decrease by 13 per cent this year, from US$238.8 billion in 2019 to an estimated US$207.9 billion in 2020. 
  • Singapore-based ride-hailing firm Grab—the highest-valued startup in Southeast Asia—is laying off over 300 workers.
  • China’s venture capital funds continue to struggle, having raised just US$3.7 billion in the first half of the year, down about 60 per cent from the same period last year. 
  • Amazon is deploying software in its U.S. warehouses that warns workers when they’re getting too close to someone. 

Around the world: New Zealand has reported its first coronavirus cases in 24 days— two women from the U.K., who had flown in for a family funeral. Authorities in Beijing have described the city’s coronavirus outbreak as “extremely severe” as dozens more cases emerged and travel from the city was curtailed and schools were closed. Hungarian lawmakers have voted in favour of withdrawing special powers granted to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Harvard University will reopen its campus, but most classes will remain online for the new academic year. The U.S. Open will be held in August and September without an audience. Officials in England are bracing for a “summer of rave” not seen since 1989. Japanese geishas are now on Zoom.

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India’s “corona voice”: Instead of ringing, people in India placing phone calls hear “caller tunes” recorded by voiceover artist Jasleen Bhalla’s 30-second public health advisories, which have made her a well-known presence across the country.

* 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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