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COVID-19 roundup: Ottawa expands business-loan program

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick
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It’s day 37 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 29,925 as of publication time, up 1,546 since yesterday, a 31 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior average. On their respective 37th day, U.S. daily new cases were up seven per cent from the three-day prior average; the U.K. had a whopping 93 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down 22 per cent.* 

The Navajo Nation, which has 332,000 members, has reported more cases of COVID-19 per capita than almost every U.S. state, behind only New York and New Jersey. 

“It’s a start”: Banks and credit unions have issued more than 195,000 interest-free, partly forgivable loans of up to $40,000 each, worth a total of over $7.5 billion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday. That’s 30 per cent of the $25-billion budget dispersed since the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) launched a week ago; the U.S. Small Business Administration closed its equivalent US$349-billion Paycheck Protection Program to new applications Thursday, the entire budget distributed after two weeks. Ottawa is expanding the CEBA’s eligibility criteria to firms with between $20,000 and $1.5 million in 2019 payroll, down and up from $50,000 and $1 million, respectively. Trudeau said the changes reflect feedback from business owners “who could really use this help, but who do not fit the current admissibility criteria.” They won’t address the concerns of small businesses who classify their staff as contractors or owners who pay themselves via dividends.

Dear Landlord: Trudeau also announced he’s negotiating with the provinces and territories over commercial-rent assistance. The program will provide loans, some forgivable, to landlords “who in turn will lower or forgo the rent of small businesses” for April, May and June. Finance Canada did not answer The Logic’s questions about eligibility criteria or whether the money would be available before many rents are due at the end of the month. Trudeau is due to speak to the premiers later today. 

“We like that it goes through the landlord; we’re concerned that it’s a loan,” said Jon Shell, managing director of Social Capital Partners and an organizer of lobby group Save Small Business. Uptake will depend on how much of the credit is forgivable, he said. The group is also encouraged that Ottawa appears to be focusing on rent reductions and waivers instead of deferrals. On Wednesday, it called for a federal program that would cover the first $10,000 of monthly commercial rent and reimburse property owners up to 66 per cent. “I’m worried that the reason they’ve gone with the loan is because they think it’s faster that way,” said Shell. “What’s most important is … an understanding between landlords and tenants that there is a fair deal for them to take.”

Raman Bayanzadeh, a Vancouver-based retail real estate agent, said that while some provinces are providing aid for residential rents, a program for commercial properties is “urgently needed.” Landlords still have to pay property tax, maintenance and utilities, and not all can afford to provide deferrals or waivers, he said. Ottawa could also be “tightening the bottom line of landlords” if it structures the program as a repayable loan for them but a reduction or abatement for tenants; margins for small-property owners are low in Western Canada, Bayanzadeh said, with rent flowing directly to mortgage payments. “We need a little bit of free money injected, even if it’s for one [or] two months’ rent,” he said. 

Fintechs’ $2-billion loan proposal: A group of leading fintechs is in discussions with Ottawa on a proposal to provide $2 billion in emergency loans to up to 100,000 Canadian small businesses, The Logic has learned. The fintechs’ proposal would get money to small businesses that don’t qualify for existing government assistance programs because their key workers are contractors rather than employees; because staff are paid via dividends instead of payroll; or because their payroll falls above or below the criteria set by the government. Fintechs are helping governments in the U.S., U.K. and Australia disburse funds, but not all of those initiatives are rolling out smoothly. In the U.S., fintechs weren’t let into one lending program until about half the funds had been claimed. 

In the markets: The week’s modest stock-market rally continued on Thursday with the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones up a respective 0.58 per cent and 0.14 per cent, and the Nasdaq gained 1.66 per cent. In Canada, meanwhile, the S&P/TSX dipped 0.37 per cent and the loonie was back down to 71 cents to the U.S. dollar after reaching an 11-day high on Wednesday. The National Bank of Canada anticipates Canada will have the largest “one-year financial deterioration” of all advanced economies. Tiff Macklem, thought to be a contender to replace Stephen Poloz as Bank of Canada governor, warned the oil slump will outlast the impact of the pandemic. Meanwhile, BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, saw a flight from long-term investments in its first quarter, a first in five years. New job numbers from the U.S. show a record 22 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the past month, and LinkedIn data for March shows its biggest year-over-year drop in hiring since January 2017. European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde warned the eurozone is heading for “a large contraction in output” and “rapidly deteriorating labour markets.” 

“Imagine having the same reality of this pandemic without these tools”: Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, believes the coronavirus should make us all “a little bit grateful” for Big Tech companies. “Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon, for example,” he said. “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign … is profound, and I hope people will remember that when this thing is finally over.” 

Trace me on my cellphone: India’s Narendra Modi recommended yesterday that citizens download a mobile app that would alert them about any possible interaction with a COVID-19 patient. Experts say the app may be violating users’ privacy and could serve as a surveillance tool by asking for access to both Bluetooth and location services. Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal-market commissioner, raised similar concerns about Google and Apple’s contact-tracing efforts, holding a 30-minute teleconference with Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Wednesday to urge the company to respect EU privacy laws. EU officials have asked companies to take precautions including not storing data on central servers,and excluding the collection of location data.. One U.S. senator warned that both Apple and Google needed to do a lot of legwork “to convince a rightfully skeptical public that they are fully serious about the privacy and security of their contact tracing efforts.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Snapchat show “Good Luck America” that while he hadn’t spoken to the companies, they needed to be mindful that “the civil liberties-type pushback on [such an app] would be considerable.” Here are some helpful answers to FAQs about the Google-Apple endeavour.

“We’ve leapfrogged a whole generation”: Ontario Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli told the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Wednesday the pandemic was “a signal for governments to be stepping up broadband and all of the networking and fiber capabilities we need.” Speaking from his home office, Fedeli outlined how he was running his entire ministry on “three BlackBerrys, a desktop and a laptop” to help create a PPE and pharmaceutical economy in the province that would last beyond the crisis and boost Ontario exports. Big companies like Ford “are not going to make face shields when they’re back to making cars,” he said. “We want to make sure someone is in place to do that.”

Cross-country checkup: Canada’s biggest migrant rights network has written to the federal government asking for income support for undocumented residents. Quebec Premier François Legault is considering lowering immigration levels to counter rising unemployment. Meanwhile, Quebec has asked Ottawa to help it fill staffing shortages at long-term care facilities; Trudeau said the federal government would consider deploying the military, the Red Cross or volunteers to help the province. U.S. President Donald Trump signalled support for easing travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada. The federal government is teeing up “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects to help stimulate the economy once the pandemic subsides. P.E.I. has declared a state of emergency. Police in Waterloo, Ont. now have access to a database of COVID-19 results so they can take precautions when approaching people.

Bay Street to Main Street: Many small-business owners say they still don’t qualify for relief funds through various federal and provincial programs meant to help them weather the pandemic. Even some businesses that do meet eligibility criteria say they’re facing barriers in the application process at a time when they can’t afford to wait for aid.

  • Chicken farmers plan to cut their flocks by more than 12 per cent while other farmers continue to throw away crops amid supply chain disruptions triggered by COVID-19.
  • Telecoms are anticipating billions in lost revenue as roaming charges dry up and business clients cancel packages. 
  • Independent internet provider TekSavvy is asking the CRTC to lower the rates it pays larger telecoms, citing the surge in demand from the pandemic making its costs “impossible to meet.” 
  • BDC Capital is reportedly considering expanding its VC fund-matching program to angel-backed companies. 
  • A Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay, Ont. is gearing up to produce 18,000 ventilators.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: The Ontario government has created a list of companies with job opportunities to help match workers with essential jobs. The RIC Centre, a Toronto-area innovation hub, is starting a free webinar series called “Experts to Entrepreneurs.” The first session is on Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET. Canadian Art in Isolation is an initiative that will help deliver works of art to seniors to be displayed in their rooms. Artists can include a note with their painting for the receiving senior, with a return address optional. Steven Wood from SwankyDen.com, a home decor blog, has created a calculator to help prevent people from buying more toilet paper than they need. 

Postcard from Rome: Jeffrey Bower has had firsthand experience of three countries’ COVID-19 responses. The payment-services lead at the United Nations World Food Programme spent several weeks in lockdown in Rome at the beginning of the crisis. The first thing he noticed was the exodus of tourists. “The last weeks of February and the first week of March, Rome was a completely different city. We were walking around and it was beautiful—you could hear people speak Italian, which you never hear in Rome anymore.” Bower’s mother came to visit him from Canada for what was supposed to be a two-week visit, including a tour of towns in Northern Italy. It ended up getting cut short as the virus spread through the country. Shortly thereafter, Bower and his partner decided to pack up their life in Rome and return home to Toronto, which included a mad scramble to give food and houseplants to friends. They managed to book a $378 connecting flight via London, two hours before U.S. President Trump announced a travel ban that sent tickets for that flight up to $1,500. 

On their layover, Bower said, “I was in complete awe of what we saw in England. Pubs were full. People were out drinking on the streets; a ton of people were walking around. No one was taking it seriously.” When he got back to Toronto, he quarantined with his partner and their mothers. All four developed a cough, but tested negative for COVID-19. He’s working from home now, feeling grateful to be healthy and urging other Canadians to take this seriously: “People have to be mentally prepared for this last to the summer, if not beyond.”

Drinking from the firehose: Alphabet, Google’s parent company, will slow down its hiring plans this year. CEO Pichai told staff the company would be “recalibrating the focus and pace of our investments in areas like data centers and machines, and non business essential marketing and travel.” In February, The Logic learned that Google was set to make a major expansion in Canada over the next few years that included launching its first Canadian accelerator in Kitchener-Waterloo. A spokesperson told The Logic there were no specific updates to share about those expansion plans: “We’ll be slowing down the pace of hiring, while maintaining momentum in a small number of strategic areas, and onboarding the many people who’ve been hired but haven’t started yet.” 

  • In his annual shareholder letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the surge in orders since the pandemic started “occurred with little warning, creating major challenges for our suppliers and delivery network.” The company is looking to sell fewer items to manage the order volume. Bezos also said the company will eventually begin testing all of its employees for the coronavirus, including those who show no symptoms.
  • Facebook will begin showing notifications to users who have interacted with posts that contain “harmful” coronavirus misinformation that will direct them to a page maintained by the World Health Organization. The new policy applies only to misinformation that Facebook considers likely to contribute to “imminent physical harm,” such as false claims about “cures” or statements that physical distancing is not effective. The announcement coincides with the release of a scathing report by the online activist group Avaaz that called the social media giant an “epicenter of coronavirus misinformation.” 
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has cancelled all large in-person events until June 2021.
  • Expedia will slash ad spending this year, bringing it down from its annual US$5-billion expenditure to less than US$1 billion. 
  • Companies are spending less on information-technology hardware and more on cloud services, artificial intelligence and other tools that will help reduce costs, according to new research by IDC.
  • Verizon will buy Zoom rival BlueJeans Network for less than US$500 million.
  • Instacart and Costco have joined forces to launch a prescription delivery service in parts of the U.S.

“We are at a moment of truth, which is to decide whether the European Union is a political project or just a market project”: French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the EU and the euro will be threatened without “financial transfers and solidarity” across the eurozone.

The grand reopening: Trump will release “flexible” guidelines on Thursday evening on reopening the economy. His “Opening the Country Council” stumbled on its first day as several CEOs were surprised to see their name on the list of 200 business leaders. A White House official told The New York Times it had sent an email on Tuesday afternoon to all the people selected and did not wait for replies. The Swiss government has outlined its three-phase plan to reopen sections of its economy, starting April 27, after six weeks of restrictions. The government has not yet determined when cafes and restaurants might open, and public events are likely to remain banned until a vaccine is found. Some Mexican schools and businesses will resume on May 17. Australia, however, will extend its lockdown for another month, while Japan has declared a nationwide state of emergency. The U.K. lockdown will continue for another three weeks, and New Yorkers will stay at home until May 15. A new MIT report urges caution in lifting quarantine measures too soon, finding that “the consequences would be far more catastrophic.” 

Around the world: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to give ¥100,000 ($1,315) to every citizen. The U.K. is set to announce new funding for startups and companies on Friday. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered a “heartfelt apology” to Italy for failing to help at the start of its coronavirus outbreak. Around 2,000 houseboats in the Indian state of Kerala are being converted into isolation facilities for coronavirus patients. Starting next weekend, more than one million coronavirus tests will be rolled out in Africa, and Chile will issue the world’s first immunity cards for people that have recovered from coronavirus.

“I never thought I’d see some cloistered nuns playing basketball”: Sisters in Spain have some serious game. 

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

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