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COVID-19 roundup: Mask protectioni3M

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It’s day 24 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 12,375 as of publication time, up 1,090 since yesterday, a 21 per cent decrease in daily new cases. On their respective 24th day, U.S. daily new cases jumped 29 per cent, the U.K. had a 12 per cent increase in daily new cases and in Italy, new cases were up nine per cent.* 

Italian health officials are optimistic that the rate of new infections is slowing, almost one month after the country enacted lockdown measures. The country’s death toll is 14,681, with another 766 deaths over the past 24 hours. Rome has said the lockdown measures will remain in place until at least mid-April.

It’s a masked world: U.S. President Donald Trump has asked 3M, which makes N95 masks, to stop exporting the protective gear to Canada and Latin America after invoking the Defense Production Act, which requires the Minnesota-based company to prioritize orders from the Federal Management Agency. The directive comes as the stockpile of N95 masks runs dangerously low in the U.S., despite manufacturers from disparate industries jumping in to boost production of the protective gear. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said enforcing the ban would be “a mistake,” and warned that it could compromise the movement of medical goods between the U.S.-Canada border.

In a statement Friday, 3M warned of the “significant humanitarian implications” of cutting countries off from the sought-after N95s. “Ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done,” the company said. If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease.” 

It isn’t just the U.S. that’s low on masks. Worldwide, N95s have become one of the most coveted products on the market. The demand has attracted price-gouging and scammers, along with donations from legitimate sources. Huawei, for example, has shipped hundreds of thousands of the masks to B.C. for the province’s health-care workers. 

On top of banning exports to Canada and elsewhere, the U.S. is requiring 3M to increase the number of masks it imports to the U.S. from its overseas manufacturers, and the administration seems open to intrusive means of enforcing the rule. Berlin officials reported Friday that U.S. law-enforcement confiscated 200,000 N95 masks at an airport in Bangkok. The gear—produced at 3M’s factory in China—was headed to Berlin to protect the city’s police force; city officials called the seizure “modern piracy.”

Should you be covering your face? It’s important that medical-grade masks like N95s be reserved for health-care workers and others on the pandemic’s front lines, but guidance from public health authorities on using other face coverings, like scarves or bandanas, has been mixed. Canada’s health minister and chief public health officer have said they can’t hurt. New York’s mayor has asked citizens to do it. The White House is expected to issue new guidance soon. This feature from The Atlantic, originally published Wednesday but updated this morning, is a useful read on the subject.

In the markets: Global markets were down on Friday, losing some of the gains they had clawed back on Thursday. The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones were down 1.51 per cent and 1.69 per cent, respectively, while the Nasdaq fell 1.53 per cent. The U.S. reported 701,000 job losses for March, the biggest monthly payroll drop since March 2009. Analysts are predicting the Canadian dollar will remain depressed for months. It’s fallen over eight per cent since the start of the year, with most of that loss happening in the last month; RBC Capital Markets chief technical strategist George Davis said they’re predicting a recession in the first half of this year. The Toronto Stock Exchange closed 1.22 per cent lower. Meanwhile, economic activity across Europe is suffering: IHS Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index dropped from 51.6 in February to 29.7 in March, the lowest reading since the survey began 22 years ago. Earlier this week, Canada’s index fell from 51.8 in February to 46.1 in March.

Counting to 30 per cent: Ottawa’s requirement that businesses show a 30 per cent revenue drop to qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy doesn’t account for the way software-as-a-service (SaaS) startups make money, James Novak, CEO of Toronto-based Fiix Software, told The Logic. “The result of COVID-19 is that revenue is effectively flat for SaaS companies, not decreasing,” he said. Customers of well-performing platforms stay between seven and 10 years on average, and firms spend a third as much as they’ll make over the length of that relationship to sign them up. That effectively means it takes three years to break even on a client. Companies trade short-term financial losses for long-term growth, and hiring based on the full length of a customer relationship, not just the first year or contract. “If that lifetime value is not there, then [they] will certainly have to lay off,” Novak said. While firms may not face a crunch this month or next, they’ll have to make tough decisions in the third and fourth quarters. The wage subsidy would help lengthen that runway. Fiix, which makes maintenance software, hasn’t cut staff yet. Some of its customers are food and beverage or supply chain companies “overflowing with demand” amid the outbreak, while other clients in sectors like energy are faring worse. “I don’t think that we’ve seen enough information from the government to be able to assess our short-term impact yet,” Novak said. He’s hoping Ottawa will consider measuring the 30 per cent business decline against net revenue add, instead of year-over-year revenue. 

“I just spend every day hand-holding investors”: Daniel Ives, managing director for equity research at Wedbush Securities, a Los Angeles-based financial services firm, said providing emotional support to investors in tumultuous pandemic markets has become an inadvertent part of every analyst’s job. 

Ottawa partners with Amazon: Ottawa has signed an agreement with Amazon Canada to manage the distribution of personal protective equipment like face shields, masks, gowns, ventilators and test kits across the country. Speaking in French Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau said the delivery giant will use its large distribution network to “ensure the delivery of medical equipment where we have the greatest needs.” Critics are disappointed that Ottawa chose to partner with Amazon instead of a Canadian-owned delivery brand. They’re also concerned that the government deal could put further strain on warehouse workers, many of whom say they aren’t being properly protected against COVID-19. A petition started by Brampton, Ont.-based Warehouse Workers Centre alleges Amazon is refusing to give workers paid leave. An Amazon spokesperson told the Toronto Star that the company is “going to great lengths to keep the buildings extremely clean and help employees practise important precautions such as social distancing.” Trudeau did not provide details on the value of the contract.

Google’s data dive: Google published reports Friday showing how the coronavirus has impacted people’s movement in 131 countries from February 16 to March 29. Based on location data Google gathers, it breaks out visits to retail and recreational venues, transit stations, grocery stores and workplaces, among others. Italy and Spain, two of the hardest-hit countries, both saw visits to restaurants, movie theatres and other recreational places fall 94 per cent during that time period. The U.K., France and the Philippines had declines of more than 80 per cent; India, which went into a 21-day lockdown on March 25, saw a 77 per cent drop. In Canada, where most provinces have ordered non-essential businesses to close, retail and recreational visits fell 59 percent, grocery and pharmacy trips fell 35 per cent, transit station visits fell by 66 per cent and traffic to workplaces dropped 44 per cent. Quebec led the provinces in declines, with retail and recreational trips falling 70 per cent and visits to transit stations by 75 per cent.

The analysis, which uses location data gleaned from billions of Google users’ phones, is the largest publicly available. The reports Google released Friday don’t contain any information about individual movements, and thus represents only a fraction of the information it could make available to government and public health agencies to help them assess whether people are abiding with social-distancing demands. 

It’s a technological solution to which countries around the world are increasingly turning to fight the pandemic, and companies are responding in kind, developing and pitching hundreds of new location-tracking apps to governments. In the U.K., a government-backed project—which would need users to opt in—could be launched within weeks, while in the U.S., several projects have emerged attempting something similar. Some U.S. researchers are also using mobile data provided by Facebook to get daily updates on cities’ progress in social distancing. While critics are concerned about what this means from a privacy point of view; others, like the European Union’s technology chief Thierry Breton, say they aren’t worried. A survey of The Logic’s subscribers found most want Canada to use anonymized data to help control the spread of COVID-19, with many saying that public safety demands all resources be used. Said one subscriber: “This [is] an emergency. Survival outweighs the right to privacy.”

Cross-country checkup: Social distancing could save as many as 4,400 lives in Ontario by the end of this month, according to the provincial government’s COVID-19 modelling released Friday. The current model estimates the province will reach 80,000 cases and 1,600 deaths by the end of April. The premiers of Quebec and New Brunswick have vowed to release their modelling next week. Ontario faced criticism for lagging behind other provinces in testing, the result of its early dependence on one company for the necessary chemicals. After releasing the modelling, Premier Doug Ford—who has become Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s “therapist”—announced the government would be closing “many more sectors of the economy” as of midnight Saturday, including all industrial and infrastructure construction, save for “critical” projects such as the building of hospitals and bridges. Here is a list of businesses allowed to remain open. 

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced over $100 million to speed up the procurement of medical supplies, equipment and other essential needs. The province is also permitting a six-month payment deferral on some utilities and property taxes without interest or penalties. Alberta schools are looking to step into reserves and shave costs to protect teacher jobs that have been cut to shift resources to health efforts. Prince Edward Island announced a $1-million fund for people not covered by other programs. On Thursday, Nova Scotia extended its state of emergency for two weeks, along with new support for small businesses. The Northwest Territories said its COVID-19 cases have doubled from two to four. Vancouver has laid off about 1,500 city workers. An Ontario court is deliberating whether a will can be witnessed online. The province’s egg farmers are donating over 100,000 eggs to food banks. The Wu-Tang Clan has donated to the Ottawa Food Bank. With crime on the decline, the pandemic is changing Canada’s neighbourhoods. Canada’s music industry has come together to launch MusicTogether.ca, which will stream live concerts from at least 300 Ontario-based artists.

Loans for gig-workers: Fintech startup Moves has accelerated its planned autumn launch and will start offering loans to Ontario-based ride-share drivers and food-delivery workers as of Monday, The Logic has learned. “We hear the growing number of people working independently for Uber, Lyft, and selected other app platforms are facing challenges resulting from COVID-19,” said Matthew Spoke, founder and CEO of Moves, who spent five years at Deloitte Canada earlier in his career. “Gig workers are already often overlooked so we pivoted from our planned autumn product launch to provide affordable access to credit now that will help them get through this difficult time.” The ride-hailing businesses of Uber and Lyft, for example, have dropped by more than 50 per cent in the past few weeks. Moves will loan gig workers as much as $2500, requiring no payments for the first 12 weeks, after which the company will withdraw $70 a week for 40 weeks. Over a one-year period, people will pay back $2,800 in total, an interest rate of about 12 per cent. 

Bay Street to Main Street:

  • Tailscale, a startup that offers a virtual privacy network for remote corporate teams, has raised $3 million in a seed round led by San Francisco-based accelerator fund Heavybit.
  • CAE, a Montreal-based aerospace company, developed an easy-to-build ventilator prototype in 11 days, and hopes to make 10,000 over the next three months. A single ventilator will take about five hours to build, the first of which the company aims to deliver in three weeks.
  • Opencare, a Toronto-based health-care booking company, laid off 18 members, representing 25 per cent of its workforce, last week. 
  • Vancouver-based fintech Mogo is laying off 30 per cent of its employees, roughly 80 people, citing uncertainty arising from COVID-19. 
  • Mastercard and Visa are raising the tap limit on all credit cards from $100 to $250.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: After Ritual laid off 50 per cent of its workforce, the company made a list of 165 employees that are available for hire. Community Make is bringing together Canadian entrepreneurs, technology experts and medical professionals to find out what is needed and how people can help. Here is a list of wellness resources—including telehealth, fitness, mental health—for parents and companies alike. RTraction Canada, a London, Ont.-based digital-services company, has created a business self-assessment tool to help Canadian companies determine for which financial aid they will be eligible; it is currently in the alpha stage and looking for feedback.

CIHR cancels: Canada’s biggest funder of health research has cancelled its spring grant competition due to COVID-19. Twice a year, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)—the federal government’s health-funding arm—reviews projects from thousands of scientists from across the country, issuing hundreds of millions in grants to support their work, often for years to come. CIHR president Dr. Michael Strong said that while the organization had considered holding the competitions virtually, many of the clinicians and health professionals who peer-review the work don’t have the bandwidth to evaluate the projects: “[they] are presently occupied with a more important duty: caring for the health and safety of their families and loved ones, which must remain their top priority.”  

The decision has triggered backlash from the research community, some of whom said they were eager to review the projects and were never contacted about the prospect of cancelling the competition. “At a time when the world needs health research the most, Canada has badly undermined its own health research ecosystem and sent the world the message that it cannot reliably fund health research,” Morgan Barense, a neuroscientist and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto, told The Logic. “Funding stability is paramount to scientific innovation, and this instability at CIHR is going to devastate a lot of research programs, especially those of early career researchers.” 

Last spring, CIHR granted $275 million to 403 projects. The organization said those who had applied for this spring’s grants can defer their applications to the fall competition, but Barense said many early-stage researchers don’t have the resources to wait that long. “Trainees will be forced to leave science, and many research programs will be shut down or curtailed.”  

Postcard from New York: Giving blood in the middle of a pandemic had two added benefits for Keah Lonergan: getting her out of the house and letting her meet new people. “They’ve pedestrianized Park Avenue, which feels really weird. There were tons of people out, kids riding scooters in the middle of the street, people just treating it sort of like a park.” Lonergan, a manager at AI firm Trax Retail, has been in her Chinatown apartment since March 15. She’s been grocery shopping twice, and has gone on a few runs pre-sunrise to avoid the crowds, but for the most part she’s stayed home. When the New York Blood Center declared an emergency, saying it was down to just one to two days of reserve plasma, she knew she had to go. At the centre, her temperature was taken multiple times, and every other bed was vacant to maintain social distancing. “We were all kind of chatting there because I think we were all just starved for connection … like, ‘How’s your quarantine going?’ And everybody seemed in pretty good spirits.” Trax puts cameras in grocery stores to monitor in real-time what products are on shelves and then uses AI to alert companies on what’s running low. Lonergan has been busy helping roll out new products for the company’s grocery clients. “While that’s a super powerful tool and has been really successful overall, in this crisis, the issue is that the store associates don’t have anything in the back room to grab for restock.”

Drinking from the firehose: Amazon continues to come under fire for the treatment of its employees amid the pandemic. According to BuzzFeed News, some workers with fevers were sent home to quarantine with no guarantee of pay. Vice found that company executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos, discussed a plan to smear Christian Smalls, a New York warehouse employee who was fired Monday; he said it was because he led a walkout over health and safety conditions. Amid all this, the e-commerce giant has postponed its Prime Day event to August. Meanwhile, U.S. gig workers are struggling to apply for federal financial assistance, which provides few guidelines. Yesterday during a court hearing about sick pay during the outbreak, a U.S. district judge said the refusal of Lyft and other California-based gig companies to reclassify drivers from independent contractors to employees is “really disregarding the rule of law” in the state.

Briefly:

  • A Silicon Valley firm that produces fuel cells has fixed over 500 ventilators with a 300-plus-page manual and “a lot of moxie.”
  • Etsy is asking all its sellers to make masks.
  • Instacart will deliver free health and safety kits to its full-service shoppers, days after its workers went on strike over health and safety concerns. The kits will include a washable and reusable cloth face mask, hand sanitizer and a reusable thermometer, 
  • YouTube is running advertisements on videos pushing unproven COVID-19 cures, according to a report published by the Tech Transparency Project, a non-profit watchdog organization.
  • Airbnb has reduced its internal valuation from US$31 billion to US$26 billion.
  • Multiple U.S. state attorneys general are joining forces to investigate Zoom’s privacy and security practices. A new report found that the root of the platform’s security problems is within Zoom’s internal systems.
  • American dairy farmers are being asked to dump their milk due to supply chain disruptions.
  • The Wing, a co-working startup for women, has cut approximately half of its full-time staff and most of its hourly employees; others have been furloughed.
  • American schools are administering exams through digital proctor services that are recording students and their bedrooms. 
  • Some companies that produce condoms and sex toys are seeing sales nearly double.

Around the world: Anyone expected to be near President Trump or Vice-President Mike Pence will be given a rapid COVID-19 test. European tech industry groups are urging European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to “give startups a central role in your solutions to the COVID-19 outbreak.” France will be posting tens of thousands of extra police across the country to enforce the lockdown as Easter holidays begin; Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said, “The virus is not on holiday.” Ecuadorians are pleading for help as dead bodies collect on the roadside or outside houses, or remain at home for days in temperatures of over 30 C. Saudi Arabia has launched a US$2.4-billion package to cover 60 per cent of wages for private-sector workers for three months in industries affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Starting April 20, the BBC will provide 14 weeks of educational programs and lessons to every household in the U.K.—“its biggest push on education in its history.” English Premier League players may be asked to take a 30 per cent wage cut. The Queen will make a rare address on Sunday. A computer simulation of the Grand National, the U.K.’s most famous horse race, will be broadcast live in prime time on Saturday. 

“If you don’t have a crush on this man, do you even care about public health?”: The Anthony Fauci fan club continues to grow exponentially, with an online petition calling for the 79-year-old top U.S. public health official to be named People magazine’s “sexiest man alive.” 

* 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. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

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