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COVID-19 roundup: Emergency session, unprecedented powers

An empty House of Commons chamber in October 2019. Shutterstock/Tyrone Kidney
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It’s day 14 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 2,590, as of publication time. On their respective 14th day, the U.K. had 2,626 cases, the U.S. had 4,663 and Italy 5,883.* 

India has imposed a three-week nationwide lockdown of the country’s 1.37 billion people. “In the next 21 days, do just one thing: stay at home,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “You will invite a grave pandemic in your homes if you step out.” He made the announcement at 8 p.m. local time; the measure took effect at midnight.

Some hon. members: The federal government convened an emergency session of the House of Commons Tuesday afternoon, arranging to have roughly 32 MPs debate legislation that would give Ottawa unprecedented powers to respond to the spreading impacts of the coronavirus. However, after a Monday night leak of the draft legislation and opposition vows to vote against the bill, the government said it would remove a controversial section that would have given cabinet the power to raise or lower taxes without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021. Though the House met briefly at midday as planned, the session was suspended as MPs negotiated behind the scenes in an attempt to agree on a bill they could all support. One fly in the ointment: Conservative MP Scott Reid, not among those invited to the session, who showed up regardless in an attempt to prevent the bill from receiving unanimous consent. Without unanimity, the House and Senate won’t be able to pass the bill as quickly as they’d hoped.

Even if the most contentious section of the legislation is removed it will give the government remarkable powers. According to a draft seen by the National Post, Finance Minister Bill Morneau could be granted the authority to purchase or hold a company’s shares, offer new lines of credit and guarantee pools of debt without the need for new legislation. According to The Globe and Mail, the legislation would also give Morneau the power to spend “all money required to do anything, including making payments to provinces and territories, in relation to that public health event.” The legislation would also allow the health minister to effectively break patents on medical devices that are urgently needed, which could help medical device companies expand their factories and help other manufacturing companies retool their production lines.

929,000: That’s the number of employment insurance claims filed from March 16 to 22, according to The Globe and Mail and Bloomberg. It represents approximately five per cent of the Canadian workforce.

In the markets: Wall Street rallied on Tuesday after the Federal Reserve released a historic and limitless response to the crisis, and as Washington signalled it was nearing a deal on a US$2-trillion stimulus package, expected to be finalized today. The package will include direct payments of US$1,200 to most Americans, as well as help for small businesses and the travel industry. The Dow Jones Industrial Average marched to its biggest one-day gain (11.37 per cent) since 1933, closing at 20,704.91. The S&P 500 climbed 9.38 per cent. And, the Nasdaq Composite rose 8.12 per cent. Canada’s benchmark S&P/TSX Composite Index was up by 11.96 per cent. The Canadian dollar was up slightly to 69.04 cents U.S. Elsewhere, data firm IHS Markit’s U.S. Composite Output Index, which tracks activity in the manufacturing and services sectors, dropped to 40.5 this month, a historic low. (A reading below 50 indicates contraction.) 

Still taking calls: The federal regional development agencies, which provide funding and advice to companies across the country, will “apply a deferral of three months on all payments due to the government, as of April 1, 2020,” said Paul Demers, chief of operations and liaison at the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency. “This moratorium will defer payments and related interest charges to relieve some of the pressure businesses may be facing.” The Atlantic, Northern and Southern Ontario and Western agencies all told The Logic they’re continuing to process applications for their business scale-up programs; the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency said it may also “waive quarterly reporting requirements without impacting scheduled payments for ongoing projects,” and allow clients to use funding on expenses for which didn’t previously qualify. The Liberal government has re-focused the agencies on local innovation ecosystems and scale-ups, and they’re an increasingly important funding source in regions where provincial programming has been cut.

Advice from an investor: “Right now, any company that doesn’t have at least 24 months of runway is almost dead. You need that to get through the storm in case it gets worse, and then you still have to get through the recovery. There is going to be a new normal, which will come with new opportunities, constraints and everything else. The one thing that’s clear is that we’re not going back to how it was.” – Chris Arsenault, partner at Inovia Capital, in an interview Tuesday with The Logic.

Gathering places: On Monday night, Toronto Mayor John Tory told an audience of thousands logged on for an online TechTO event that the city had “the cellphone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend” to see where people were still congregating. He called such groups the “biggest enemy of fighting” COVID-19. Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat told The Logic later Monday night the mayor was referencing “an offer to share totally anonymous cellphone location information.” On Tuesday morning, city chief communications officer Brad Ross said Toronto “is not in possession of such data, nor will it acquire such data.” However, neither Peat nor Ross have responded to repeated requests for clarification. Tory also called on the event’s thousands of attendees—many of whom work in Toronto’s tech sector—to consider what data their own products could produce for the city in its attempts to fight the pandemic. We’ve posted our audio recording of Tory’s comments here

In the wake of The Logic’s story, Trudeau was also asked Tuesday if Ottawa was considering asking carriers for similar data. “As far as I know, that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” he said. “But as I’ve said, all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.”

ICYMI: Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke’s furor at Rogers’s quality of service from yesterday has dissipated. “Turns out this was caused by the cable modem,” Lütke tweeted today, adding that the modem was exchanged with a new one that was “covered in lysol.” Nothing but respect for customer services rep “^map,” who responded to Lütke’s ire yesterday.

Cross-country checkup: B.C. has introduced a $5-billion aid package to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the provincial economy that extends major tax payments until September 30 and allocates $1.1 billion to support personal incomes, including a one-time $1,000 tax-free benefit for people unable to work due to the crisis. Ontario released its list of essential businesses that can remain open in the province-wide shutdown that starts at 11:59 p.m. tonight. It’s also temporarily lowering hydro rates for at least 45 days, a decision that will cost an estimated $162 million. SSi Micro, Nunavut’s main telecom operator, warned users to expect severe traffic jams because “there is only so much capacity available.” The Public Health Agency of Canada reported that 44 per cent of the country’s COVID-19 cases are spreading through community transmission. Jane Philpott, the former federal health minister and doctor at the Markham Stouffville Hospital in Ontario, said she was “afraid of what lies ahead for humanity.” 

Briefly:

  • Suncor Energy slashed its production outlook for the year, reducing capital expenses by 26 per cent and suspending share buybacks. 
  • North America’s oil industry is seeing spending cuts in the order of US$20 billion, according to a TD Securities report, amid fallout from the virus along with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. 
  • WestJet is laying off 6,900 employees—about half of its workforce. Executive team members will see their salaries cut in half while vice-presidents and directors will lose 25 per cent of their pay.
  • About 600 Air Canada pilots are going on unpaid leave after the airline slashed its April schedule by 80 per cent.
  • Shopify has seen a spike in merchants selling products claiming to fight COVID-19. The firm said it closed more than 4,500 sites last week related to the virus that didn’t substantiate their medical claims.
  • A Real Canadian Superstore employee in Oshawa, Ont. has tested positive for COVID-19, parent firm Loblaw’s first confirmed case. 
  • Sobeys’s parent company Empire will hire laid-off workers from Cineplex and other companies to reinforce its staff as it anticipates some will contract COVID-19 and have to stay home.
  • TD will pay bonuses—up to two $500 installments—to staff who can’t work from home during the pandemic.
  • Manulife is joining Canada’s Big Six banks in offering Canadians credit-card and mortgage relief for up to six months, under certain conditions.
  • Mortgage-processing firm Filogix has temporarily gone offline after being hacked, leaving many mortgage brokers and borrowers unable to secure rates, loans and refinancings. 
  • More than a third of Canada’s small businesses could shutter within a month without more relief funding, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. 

Bank employees worried: Employees at an RBC office in Mississauga, Ont. are on the front lines of the bank’s virus response, handling tens of thousands of calls from customers concerned about their finances because of COVID-19. Workers at the office, where two employees have tested positive for the virus, told The Logic they’re worried that computers aren’t always being cleaned between shifts and offices are crowded as the bank adds more overtime hours to keep up with the volume of calls.

30 per cent: That’s how many Canadians say they’re losing sleep over their personal finances, according to a survey of 16,799 people conducted by Toronto-based fintech firm Borrowell between March 20 and March 23. Thirty-four per cent of respondents said they weren’t receiving regular income and 32 per cent said they didn’t know what they’d do to pay the bills if their funds ran low. “The level of financial anxiety in this country is through the roof, and there is a real appetite for more information about what help is available,” CEO Andrew Graham told The Logic. Borrowell saw a 47 per cent increase in its platform’s usage this weekend, compared to the average between December 2019 and February. The firm is adding information on COVID-19 personal-finance topics to its website and enhancing its free credit-monitoring service.

Reality check: The Logic reported yesterday that reality television show “Big Brother Canada” was still filming despite several crew members resigning amid virus fears; Global and Insight Productions announced today it’s now stopped production. Video games and other computer accessories have seen a surge in purchases on Kijiji Canada. Canada’s border towns have emptied out and are struggling with mandated separation: “We’re one half of the circle and they’re the other,” Allan MacEachern, mayor of St. Stephen, N.B., said about his town’s ties to Calais, Maine. “To me, we’re one large town, and now we’re split in half.” A P.E.I. farmer is hurling bacon, ham and sausages through his customers’ car windows to maintain social distancing. And Canada’s new celebrity icons are its chief medical officers.

Media layoffs: The very pandemic that has publications churning out news on one of the biggest stories they’ll ever cover is also compromising their viability. Layoffs are now sweeping the news industry as outlets grapple with an acute drop in ad revenue. The Coast—Canada’s last alt-weekly newspaper—laid off almost 20 staff in Halifax and ended its print circulation indefinitely. More than half of Le Citoyen’s staff have been let go. And 143 journalists—about half of the workforce—across six community newspapers in Quebec have been temporarily laid off. The dynamics are also shaking alt-weeklies and community papers in the U.S., with some predicting the toll on the industry to be higher than the 19 per cent revenue drop that followed the 2008 financial crisis. As one analyst put it, COVID-19 could be “the full extinction event” for some publishers. 

Remote-work interest soars: Canadian job searches including terms related to remote work are up 164 per cent compared with last month, according to job-listing firm Indeed. About 1.6 per cent of all job searches on the platform were for remote work, as of March 22. “Workers with roles that can’t be done from home are in the toughest situation, facing risks to both their job security and own health,” Indeed Canada economist Brendon Bernard told The Logic. “The increase in interest in remote work shows some job seekers looking to make the best of a bad situation.” Top-searched-for remote positions include tutors, social media managers and full stack developers. 

“If the government does not have the capacity to fix it, organized crime will solve it”: Gangs have posted messages across Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, ordering residents to respect an 8 p.m. curfew or face consequences. 

Briefly: 

  • Part-time and seasonal warehouse workers at Amazon can now apply for paid time off, for which a group of them has been fighting since last year. 
  • Twitter is warning shareholders that despite increased engagement on the platform during the pandemic, its next quarter’s profits will be down compared to last year thanks to a plunge in ad sales. 
  • Digital-payment transactions in Italy are up 81 per cent since late February, according to McKinsey & Company. 
  • More than half of the news content consumed on Facebook was coronavirus-related, as of last Thursday. 
  • Germany’s three largest car manufacturers are losing more than $600 million a day after closing their plants.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has previously downplayed the severity of COVID-19, donated more than 1,000 ventilators to L.A. officials to help fill the shortage. 
  • WeWork, which has kept most of its co-working spaces open during the pandemic, is offering employees US$100 daily bonuses to work at its offices. 
  • General Motors will draw US$16 billion from its credit lines to help it stay liquid amid plant closures; the automaker suspended its 2020 outlook.
  • The world’s airlines may lose more than US$250 billion in revenue, said the International Air Transport Association, which only days ago estimated the total to be US$113 billion, itself a revision of the initial US$30-billion expectation at the start of the crisis.

Around the world: Shortly after Modi’s speech announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown, Indian people started sharing images on social media of long queues as they rushed to stockpile before midnight. Syria confirmed its first case of COVID-19. “It needs to be all hands on deck now to avoid Syria becoming an ideal laboratory for the spread of the virus,”Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Vice News. Britain’s economy is shrinking at a record and rapid quarterly rate of 1.5 to 2.0 per cent. Bill Gates said the U.S. “did not act fast enough to have an ability to avoid the shutdown.” Doctors in the U.S—which the World Health Organization said could become the next epicentre of the virus—are reaching out to those on the front lines in China, South Korea and Italy for advice. U.S. antitrust regulators will speed up the review process for cases pertinent to the slowdown of the coronavirus. The president of Harvard University and his wife have tested positive, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel tested negative. The United Arab Emirates will suspend all passenger flights as of 11:59 p.m. local time on Thursday. In a “temporary and extraordinary measure,” an ice rink in Madrid has been turned into a morgue. A German army shipment of six million masks, due to arrive March 20, has been missing in Kenya since last week. And NHL employees who make more than US$75,000 a year will get a 25 per cent pay cut. 

Steal these ideas: The Logic asked more than three-dozen business executives, entrepreneurs, academics and economists for ideas on what the government should do to help the innovation economy get through the current crisis. While many agreed the wage subsidy needed to be higher, they offered some other ideas, too. It’s worth reading the whole piece, but here are some of the highlights: 

  • Andy Mauro, founder and CEO of Automat: “For seed and Series A companies, provide a VC-matching program and make it retroactive—the companies that have just raised are not the ones that need it, it’s the one that have raised in the last three years that are going to be in trouble in this period. Let governments get on the cap table for high-potential startups, and let them share in the benefits of the eventual rebound.”
  • Abdullah Snobar, executive director of Ryerson University’s DMZ: “One measure the government could adopt is a ‘buy Canadian’ policy. Our country has a vast number of innovation-economy businesses that are ready to support our government on an economic or social level, so it’s time we procure services by made-in-Canada companies first.” 
  • Lisa Raitt, vice-chair of global investment banking at CIBC and former Conservative MP: “I believe the government should support workers and families in Canada by increasing the wage subsidy to 75 per cent. We should be focused on job retention, preventing the situation where 900,000 people are applying for EI in one week, because we know that Service Canada will not be able to keep up with demand. It’s an unnecessary insertion of the state between an employer and an employee.”

“They should just test the strength of their relationship”: U.K. deputy chief medical officer Dr. Jenny Harries advised couples to either permanently stay together or keep apart during the coronavirus outbreak to avoid people “switching in and out of households.” Said Harries, who joked she has a new career in relationship counselling: “test really carefully your strength of feeling.”

Our reporting team is working tirelessly around the clock to deliver the very latest information on the COVID-19 crisis. If you like our journalism, please consider subscribing. You can get a subscription today for more than $100 off your first year.