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COVID-19 roundup: ‘Fine-tuning’ Canada’s emergency benefits

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during his daily press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic outside of his residence at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, on Sunday, April 5, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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It’s day 27 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 16,505 as of publication time, up 992 since yesterday, but a 23 per cent decrease in daily new cases. On their respective 27th day, U.S. daily new cases jumped eight per cent from the three-day prior average; the U.K. had a 19 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were up 38 per cent.* 

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved into the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London on Monday after his coronavirus symptoms worsened. Johnson remains conscious “at this time,” and was transferred in case he requires ventilation to aid his recovery. The prime minister has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to “deputise for him where necessary,” according to an official statement.

Fine-tuning time: At 6 a.m. ET this morning, Ottawa began accepting applications for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the $2,000-a-month aid program for individuals who’ve lost income amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 240,000 people had already filed by the start of his 11:15 a.m. daily press conference. But Trudeau also acknowledged some people were being left out, because of eligibility criteria that bar those with any remaining income. “If you’re working reduced hours down to 10 hours a week or less, we will soon announce how you will be able to qualify for the CERB,” he said, citing gig and contract workers in particular. There will also be pay raises for workers at seniors’ residences and long-term care facilities to ensure they’re not incentivized to quit because they’d receive more from the benefit. “These are fine-tunings that we knew we would have to do,” Trudeau said. The CERB is open to residents born between January and March on Mondays, April to June on Tuesdays, July to September on Wednesdays, and October to December on Thursdays. Meanwhile, the government is drafting legislation to implement the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), and talking to other parties about recalling Parliament to consider it.    

Mask on: Canada’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, said Monday that wearing non-medical masks in public—when grocery shopping, for example—is a useful “additional measure” to help protect other people from asymptomatic spread. She made clear people should not be using medical-grade masks, which are in short supply and needed by health-care workers. The guidance is a reversal from Tam’s earlier advice that masks weren’t necessary, and follows a similar directive issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking to buy? A Shopify product designer has co-launched the Mask Makers Club. If you’re feeling crafty, creators on YouTube and TikTok are pumping out DIY mask tutorials. Here’s some advice on the best materials to use in a homemade mask.

In the markets: Wall Street rose on Monday on hopes the spread of coronavirus may be stabilizing: the S&P 500 was up by 7.03 per cent, the Dow Jones gained 7.73 per cent and the Nasdaq increased by 7.33 per cent. The Toronto Stock Exchange rose 5.06percent. The Canadian dollar held at 71 cents to the U.S. dollar.

Though U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted “LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!” after New York reported its first daily drop in new cases on Sunday, investors are taking mixed approaches. Andrew Busch, former chief market intelligence officer at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, predicted the shutdown would end May 1. “The worst is behind us,” said Morgan Stanley equity strategist Michael Wilson in a note to clients. “Bear markets end with recessions, they don’t begin with them, making the risk/reward more attractive today than it’s been in years.” However, in his annual shareholder letter, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon warned that America’s biggest bank “cannot be immune” to the crisis, having exposed itself “to billions of dollars of additional credit losses.” He also said the bank would “likely consider suspending the dividend” only in the worst-case scenario. 

Meanwhile in Canada, mergers and acquisitions activity has fallen almost 57 per cent in the first quarter, compared to the same time last year—its lowest level since 2015. Deals dropped to $27.75 billion in the first three months of the year from $63.74 billion last year, according to Refinitiv. Various job-loss predictions are floating in Canada’s financial sector, ranging between 100,000 to 1.1 million. A Bank of Canada survey found that the financial health of the country’s oil and gas sector “had deteriorated significantly,” leading many “to reduce costs and operations.”

“The other day she walked into one of my video meetings and said, ‘You haven’t taken the garbage out.’ I had to stop the meeting and take care of it”: Laxman Narasimhan, who became the head of Lysol maker Reckitt Benckiser last summer, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about how he helped the company adjust to supply chain disruptions, from his home in England, where he lives with his 79-year-old mother. 

Counting to 30 per cent: Pre-revenue startups won’t be able to show the Canada Revenue Agency the 30 per cent loss of business necessary to qualify for the CEWS. Such firms “have available funds [to] give us a certain runway, and need to achieve technical milestones in order to … raise funds to progress further,” Aliénor Lougerstay, financial controller at Montreal-based space-technology company Reaction Dynamics, told The Logic. But if they can’t achieve those goals because of the economic shutdown, they can’t raise more funds. “[That] leaves them in a chokehold, waiting for funds to run out without making any progress,” said Lougerstay. Reaction Dynamics, which is developing a launch vehicle for small satellites, began raising its Series A round prior to the pandemic, but has been forced to cancel meetings with U.S. and European investors. Federal officials have pointed to government-backed credit programs as an option for firms that don’t qualify for the CEWS. But Lougerstay said while “the ability to take out debt to sustain our payroll for the months to come would be critical” for the firm, the measures don’t help “companies that cannot take out debt against revenue.” She’d prefer that the government let all firms access the business-targeted measures, then audit firms to determine if they should be eligible and claw back the difference through taxes. In a survey of 651 tech CEOs released on Monday, the Council of Canadian Innovators found that 94 per cent believed their companies would be ineligible for the CEWS, and 82 per cent said they were planning layoffs. 

Hopper announces ‘significant’ layoffs: The Montreal-based company announced layoffs across the company Monday, its airline-ticket-purchasing platform caught up in the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on air travel. Though Hopper did not say how many people it’s laying off, a spokesperson said the reductions would come “across all offices and departments.” The company’s app, which has been downloaded over 40 million times, uses AI to predict the best time to buy airline tickets. Also on Monday, Toronto-based fintech Borrowell let go of 15 employees, a 20 per cent staff reduction. 

Cross-country checkup: Premier Doug Ford announced Ontario only had one week’s worth of personal protective equipment left. Ford said a shipment of three million masks had been delayed by American officials, but that 500,000 are en route and “will buy us another week.” Health Canada has reportedly approved masks produced in Woodbridge, Ont., according to Ford, as the province considers following Quebec’s lead in sanitizing and re-using masks. Trudeau acknowledged that there had been issues with delayed or incomplete deliveries from other countries, but said he expected all shipments to come, noting that Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne had “productive” talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday. Nova Scotia removed the travel prerequisite from testing eligibility. Over $2 million has been allocated to providing food for youth and elders in Nunavut. Yukon is providing 325 cellphones with four-month service plans to women in vulnerable situations. 

After reports emerged that medical professionals residing in Ontario were crossing the U.S.-Canada border to meet increased demand, hospitals in Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie barred health-care workers from working in both countries. Health researchers across the country have had to put other projects on hold as COVID-19 research gets fast-tracked. Truckers are still being turned away from restaurants and coffee shops, even for bathroom breaks. “We’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, there’s the bush,” said one. Halfway between Montreal and Toronto, near the village of Madoc, Ont., one man is making maple syrup mostly on his own: “It is a perfect recipe for social isolation.” Bhangra dancers and bagpipers are collaborating in the Yukon. Alberta’s Ghostbusters are making medical equipment. 

Your delivery is here: Point-of-sale technology company TouchBistro sped up the launch of its new online ordering feature in response to demand from its restaurant customers, which have closed their dining rooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Toronto-based firm’s 25,000 clients will also be able to start issuing gift cards. It’s frozen hiring and is reducing spending, but CEO Alex Barrotti and some of the company’s biggest investors told The Logic it has a healthy balance sheet, and they think it’s better placed than its competitors to survive the downturn. 

WorkJam closes its Series C: The Montreal-based platform for companies to manage frontline workers announced US$50 million in new venture financing on Monday. Inovia Capital led the round; other major Quebec investors included the Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Claridge, the Bronfman family office. The company sells to corporate head offices in sectors like grocery, health care, logistics and food service. Shell’s retail arm, for example, uses it for 500,000 gas-station and convenience-store workers at both corporate-owned and franchise locations around the world, WorkJam CEO Steven Kramer told The Logic. “Usage is through the roof” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Clients are using the built-in messaging system to push information to staff whose emails they may not have; to schedule shifts and re-allocate employees between locations based on demand; and to conduct safety training. “We have a good amount of customers that are essential services,” Kramer said. WorkJam will use the new funding to add to its 200-person headcount, spread across Canada, the U.S., Australia and Ukraine; it’s opening a sales and services office in London to manage a new European push. It will also make more acquisitions, after buying Los Angeles-based competitor Forge in February.   

Bay Street to Main Street: 

  • Fiat Chrysler said it plans to reopen plants in Canada and the U.S. on May 4.
  • Toronto-based accelerator Creative Destruction Lab has launched a new startup program to address the public health and economic consequences of the coronavirus.
  • Bars, lounges and cannabis companies will be able to access financial relief from the federal government’s $40-billion credit program. 
  • District Ventures, “Dragons’ Den” star Arlene Dickinson’s fund, has secured $35 million in new capital to meet her goal of $100-million for food and health startups. 
  • AMD Medicom, a Quebec-based medical-mask supplier, is opening its first mask factory in Canada by July that will supply 30 million to 50 million N95 masks a year to Ottawa under a proposed long-term agreement. 
  • Two of Canada’s largest law firms—Borden Ladner Gervais and Norton Rose Fulbright Canada—are slashing their lawyers’ salaries by at least 10 per cent each.
  • Nunavut’s mining industry is struggling after reducing its workforce to minimize the spread of the disease.
  • Brian Levy, the former CEO of RadioShack, is now an emergency doctor at Brampton Civic Hospital in Ontario: “Our training tells us to immediately come into the room. But each of us is much more conscious now, literally, of every surface we have touched—and being properly gowned—because, as you can imagine, people don’t come in here with a diagnosis stamped on their forehead.” 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Statistics Canada has partnered with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to create the Canadian Survey of Business Conditions to collect information about how COVID-19 has changed businesses and the challenges they face in the short and long term. The survey will be in the field all week. Medical professionals in London, Ont. have created an online tool to collect information about the number and severity of COVID-19 cases in the region. A coalition of entrepreneurs have come together to create a first-aid and survival kit for businesses called Recovidnow. Toronto chefs have come together to create an Open Source Cookbook to liven up quarantine cooking. 

Postcard from Toronto: At 10:30 a.m. on any normal Sunday, about a hundred people can be found in the sanctuary at Lawrence Park Community Church for its weekly worship service. But since March 15—when the liturgy was called off after a Sunnybrook Hospital employee cancelled a scheduled talk about COVID-19—congregants have gathered via Zoom. There’s a moment at the start for everyone to say hello to one another before they’re muted. While the church building was still open, the music director pre-recorded some organ solos, preludes and postludes that can be cut in at the right times. The church’s two pastors deliver their sermons, aware that since people are watching on screens, “it’s less personal, it’s less direct, it’s less earthy,” minister John Suk told The Logic. While congregants can call the church’s administrative assistant for tech support, most have been able to figure it out on their own.

Over the long term, “churches have been slowly dying,” Suk said. But on Zoom, he’s seen 90 computers logged in at once, some of them for couples—more than the usual Sunday count. People who’ve moved away or are just curious about the church’s progressive United Church theology are attending virtually. “I can’t really foresee the day when church can be done completely without meeting in the flesh,” Suk said. “The history of the church is that they met every day and broke bread together and prayed and taught.” But for now, Zoom is where the congregation is finding community and hope.  

Drinking from the firehose: At least 20 cellphone masts have been vandalized in the U.K. since late last week, in what lawmakers believe are crimes motivated by a baseless conspiracy theory speculating that 5G infrastructure plays a role in spreading COVID-19. In a joint statement, the country’s mobile phone carriers said the attacks have put their engineers in harm and called for an end to the spread of misinformation. 

Briefly:

  • Facebook’s automated content moderation systems threatened to ban some organizers from promoting handmade masks on its platform; the company later apologized for the “error.” 
  • Inovio Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company in Pennsylvania, is set to begin testing a COVID-19 vaccine on human subjects this week; the experimental vaccine has backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 
  • IBM has released an AI tool to aggregate data from over 13,000 documents from several different sources to help medical researchers extract information faster.
  • Amazon is in discussion with Abbott Laboratories and Thermo Fisher Scientific about the possibility of using the firms’ COVID-19 testing kits to screen its employees. 
  • India’s shelter-in-place rules have spurred confusion in the e-commerce industry, with law enforcement officers cracking down on Amazon workers—in some instances with beatings—despite the government exempting those delivering essential goods from the quarantine rules. 
  • Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island walked off the job on Monday, the second time since last week. The protestors claim the company isn’t ensuring their safety after more than two-dozen workers at the facility contracted COVID-19. 
  • Uber is listing jobs on its app at companies like 7-Eleven, Amazon, Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s to help drivers facing little demand for their services, and promised to pair drivers with commercial licences with logistics companies. 
  • Peloton will pause its live cycling and running classes until April 30, after an employee tested positive for COVID-19 last week. It is also pledging US$1 million to cover two months of subscriptions for those having trouble making their monthly payments.

Around the world: Has New York plateaued with the pandemic? The coronavirus death toll in the state was mostly flat for the second consecutive day, recording 599 deaths over the past 24 hours, only a slight increase from 594 the previous day. Meanwhile, the city is considering burying COVID-19 victims on public land, as it anticipates the death toll to surge and overwhelm the city’s morgues and cemeteries. Some European countries are also seeing early signs that lockdowns are helping slow the spread of COVID-19. Spain is planning to launch a basic income program “soon” as unemployment surges. As a bloc, the European Union is preparing to announce a sweeping aid package worth over half a trillion euros this week; leaders plan to reach a consensus on Tuesday. Austria is set to become among the first European countries to ease quarantine measures, with plans to open shops as early as next week. Japan, however, is getting ready to declare a month-long state of emergency in seven prefectures, including Tokyo, because of a rapid increase in the number of cases, and will also be announcing a ¥108-trillion stimulus package (20 per cent of its GDP), which will include loan guarantees and cash payments for workers. A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for COVID-19, in what is the first reported case of a human spreading the disease to another species. The Anne Frank House has launched a video series to re-imagine her quarantine using modern technology. 

“We will meet again”: The phrase with which the Queen ended her Sunday speech is the title of Vera Lynn’s iconic Second World War ballad, which is now number 22 on iTunes, rising 830 places. 

* We’re now 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 three-day prior average. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

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