COVID-19 roundup: New Liberal pandemic bill kicked to the CERB

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during a meeting of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang

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It’s day 92 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 97,065 as of publication time, up 411 since yesterday—a 29 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of new cases. 

According to the World Health Organization, 131,296 new coronavirus cases were recorded worldwide on Wednesday. One month ago, that number was 87,729, while on March 11—the day the pandemic was officially declared—there were only 4,589 recorded cases.

A House divided: The Liberal government’s latest COVID-19 emergency legislation failed to win enough support to move forward on Wednesday, as some opposition parties objected to its changes to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The bill would reportedly exclude people who didn’t accept reasonable offers of work, and fine or imprison those who submit knowingly fraudulent claims.

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The CRA has received 600 tips about potential abuse of the $2,000-a-month measure as well as other pandemic programs, and 190,000 repayments from people who believe they got money to which they weren’t entitled. That’s after distributing $43.51 billion to 8.41 million applicants through CERB, at last count.

The bill’s stall could signal the Liberals will have more trouble getting their COVID-19 measures and modifications passed, after speedy approvals for earlier emergency legislation. Innovation economy firms will be particularly watching any changes to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said nearly a month ago that Ottawa would extend the $847-per-week-per-employee program for another 12 weeks, and reconsider eligibility criteria such as the need to show a substantial revenue drop. Innovation economy lobby groups and tech executives have said software-as-a-service firms in particular and fast-growing companies more generally can’t meet that requirement. 

The House of Commons has now adjourned, meaning the legislation is on hold; the House is currently scheduled to return next week.

The bridge is (not) over: BDC Capital has doubled the budget of its venture investment-matching Bridge Financing Program to $300 million, BDC CEO Michael Denham told a House of Commons committee on Wednesday evening. The Crown corporation has done 23 deals so far worth $45 million, he said—triple the numbers as of a month ago. The funding increase comes after investors told The Logic in April that the program wasn’t big enough, and that the terms gave BDC too much control over the startups it backed. Denham said it reflected “the demand and the conversations we’ve had with VC-backed companies.” 

In the markets: The S&P 500, Dow Jones and TSX closed down even after the U.S. Federal Reserve projected it would not increase interest rates through 2022 and said it would “do whatever we can for as long as it takes” to support the economy. The Nasdaq was the outlier for the second day in a row, closing up 0.67 per cent. 

The OECD predicted the global economy would contract six per cent this year if COVID-19 is brought under control and 7.6 per cent if there’s a second global outbreak. “In both scenarios, the recovery, while initially rapid, will take a long time to bring output back to pre-pandemic levels, and the crisis will leave long-lasting scars – a fall in living standards, high unemployment, and weak investment,” the OECD said. Canada is projected to do worse than the global average, with GDP dropping eight per cent without a second wave and 9.4 per cent with one. The Canadian dollar rose despite the projection, reaching 74.60 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. 

The world’s four largest central banks hold US$23.3 trillion on their balance sheets following months of record bond buying and policy easing. That number is set to increase though, with today’s Fed announcement coming on the heels of the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China all stepping up their purchases. China’s industrial deflation worsened, with its producer-price index fallingl 3.7 per cent year-over-year in May, the fastest drop in more than four years. Meanwhile, rice futures hit their highest level since 2011 due to a spike in retail sales by customers turning to the grain during the pandemic. 

“An efficient world that prioritizes economic efficiency is extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases. We are now being challenged whether we want to return to such a vulnerable world even after COVID-19”: Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University and a key architect of Japan’s coronavirus strategy, said his country’s approach—to allow the virus to spread while focusing care on infection clusters—worked, but warned of the pandemic’s impact on the world. 

Cross-country checkup: The federal government is working on a program to grant permanent residency to asylum seekers across the country who have worked in health-care during the pandemic. Ontario plans to test 8,000 migrant farm workers in the Windsor-Essex region after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on 17 farms and two young workers died from the virus. Students in Saskatchewan will return to the classroom in September, with public health guidance on how to reopen safely being distributed as early as next week. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Education Minister Stephen Lecce were tested for COVID-19 after Lecce came in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Few businesses are applying for the federal government’s $20-billion loan program six weeks post-launch. BDC Capital, the Crown corporation tasked with sharing the risk on the loans, has not released data on how many businesses applied. However, RBC, the country’s largest lender, has approved 79 loans worth $30 million through the program and TD Bank said uptake is also low. BDC has loaned almost $2 billion in nearly 10,000 transactions since mid-March as part of other initiatives and it’s possible the interest in the $20 billion program will increase. Both BMO and CIBC said they expect demand to increase in the coming months. 

  • The two regulatory organizations overseeing Canada’s investment industry are both suggesting they merge but have different proposals on how to accomplish it. 
  • Lowe’s Canada is building a $120-million warehouse northeast of Calgary as part of a push to improve its Wester Canada operations. 
  • British Columbia’s film industry can restart production under new rules requiring physical distancing during filming. 
  • Vancouver-headquartered enterprise software firm jSonar raised US$50 million from Goldman Sachs. 
  • Canadians registered 54,129 .ca domain names in May, a 39 per cent year-over-year increase and the largest one-month number ever, in a sign that many businesses are creating websites to serve clients during the pandemic. 
  • Starbucks is closing up to 200 stores in Canada over the next two years and is experimenting with converting some locations to be for pick-up orders only.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Clinia, a Montreal-based healthcare startup, has released COVID Places API, a free software that offers a complete list of Canadian COVID-19 testing and screening centres, help lines and online self-assessment tools. The federal government has launched a new portal to help connect buyers and sellers of protective equipment.

In the lab: U.S. health agencies are planning to begin final-stage testing of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in each of the next three months. The European Commission will reportedly prevent member states from applying additional scrutiny to treatments using genetically modified organisms, which could slow down development. Researchers say there’s no verification standard for the health data they’re being pitched by private firms; last week, two leading journals retracted COVID-19 studies over concerns about underlying numbers obtained from one such company. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson will test its coronavirus vaccine in humans earlier than expected, moving the start of its phase-one trial from September to late July. A COVID-19 drug by Eli Lilly could be authorized by September. There are now more than 135 vaccines in development; here is an interactive tracker.

Trace me on my cellphone: The U.S. academic group COVID-19 Mobility Data Network is using population-level data from Facebook and advertising technology platforms to track the success of public health measures across the country. It found states that reopened early like Ohio and Wisconsin have rising case rates. The Singapore government drew inspiration for its contact tracing app from a Virginia high school project focused on tracking Ebola spread; the city state says it didn’t use kTrace’s code. South Korea has started requiring people going to bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other entertainment venues to use a smartphone-based QR code to register their entry; the requirement will apply at around 80,000 venues across the country.  

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • U.S. retailers are seeing business increase more than expected as lockdown measures ease in many parts of the country. 
  • Google sister company Wing will deliver books by drone to students Virginia while school libraries are closed over the summer. 
  • India has seen its telecom and digital services sectors take off during the pandemic. Industry leader Jio Platforms, for example, has raised US$13 billion since April. 

Around the world: The European Commission said Russia and China were running “targeted influence operations and [COVID-19] disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally.” Italian prosecutors will question Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as part of an investigation into his government’s handling of the coronavirus. Spanish authorities have fined Prince Joachim of Belgium €10,400 after going to a party in Cordoba, where he caught COVID-19. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced “support bubbles” to help adults living on their own during the lockdown. A British scientist whose modeling designed the country’s coronavirus strategy said the U.K.’s death toll could have been halved had the lockdown been implemented a week earlier. Mumbai has overtaken Wuhan, China, where the virus first emerged, in reported coronavirus cases.

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One step at a time: Alfons Leempoels, a 103-year-old retired Belgian doctor, walks 10 laps around his garden every day as part of a marathon to raise money for coronavirus research. 

* 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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