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COVID-19 roundup: ‘Teetering on the brink’

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions as Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, left, listen in during a news conference at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday March 16, 2020. Ontario declared a state of emergency on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
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“Huge downside risks”: The Conference Board of Canada doesn’t mince words. Canada “teeters on the brink of recession,” according to its spring 2020 outlook summary, released Tuesday as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on consumer and business spending and snuffs out an expected rebound in the energy sector. What’s worse, the pandemic hit just as the country’s economy had come to a near-halt at the end of 2019—in part, as RBC points out, because of a decrease in petroleum and coal production, as well as the shutdown of the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont. The country’s economic growth had been further affected by recent shocks like the rail blockades of recent months and the ongoing oil price war. While the Conference Board predicts a rebound to 2.5 per cent growth in 2021, its forecast is based on the assumption that Canada will be spared the kind of mass quarantine seen in Italy. “Unfortunately, there are huge downside risks to our outlook due to the unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will announce more economic stimulus Wednesday, which will likely include employment insurance changes and assistance for the self-employed, as well as delays in tax-filing deadlines and greater access to credit for small businesses. Parliament will be recalled to pass any necessary legislation, Trudeau said, and the government may consider the use of the Emergencies Act to help it fight the pandemic.

Downs and ups: The Canadian dollar is now at its lowest point against the U.S. dollar since January 2016, hitting 70.23 cents U.S. at 4:00 p.m. ET. American and European stocks rose after the Federal Reserve moved to shore up corporate-funding markets and the U.S. government indicated plans for a stimulus package worth up to US$850 billion. The S&P 500 gained 6 per cent, and the Nasdaq Composite climbed 6.2 per cent, while the Dow Jones rose 5.2 per cent. The S&P/TSX Composite Index is up 2.6 per cent today. On Monday, the CBOE Volatility Index—a measure of volatility in the U.S. stock market that is also known as the “fear gauge”— jumped to 77.7, around the highest levels since November 2008. It’s not just the coronavirus that’s creating this volatility in markets: some cite algorithmic investors as one reason for the tumult. 

ICYMI: A clinical trial at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle has begun testing the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine; the first volunteer received a dose Monday. The pandemic could last in Canada for months, according to public health officials. 

Meanwhile in Canada: Ontario has declared a state of emergency; so has Alberta. Quebec announced financial assistance for workers impacted by COVID-19, including $573 a week for those in the 14-day isolation period, and extended the deadline to file provincial taxes. After going into self-isolation, Alberta’s chief medical officer tested negative for the virus. The mayor of Victoria, B.C. has asked the province to cancel the city’s upcoming council byelection. The country’s maple syrup industry is scrambling to meet rush-shipment orders. Loblaw CEO Galen Weston, Jr. assured Canadians its stores will remain open, fully stocked and without price increases. Its subsidiary, Shoppers Drug Mart, said late Monday night it will dedicate the first hour of shopping to customers “who need assistance or consideration,” including seniors and people living with disabilities; many Sobeys locations followed suit. Cineplex has shut down its theatres, saying, “The time has come for us to do more.” WestJet Airlines has suspended all international flights. And a cruise ship with 146 Canadians among its 1,000 passengers—including former defence minister Art Eggleton—remains stranded in the Pacific Ocean. 

Resources for innovators: Shopify, whose vendors are predominantly small- and medium-sized enterprises, has started compiling a list of the measures governments around the world are taking to help small businesses. Three members of Canada’s tech community have launched a Google Doc where startup employees who’ve lost work during the crisis can connect with employers who are able to bring people onto their teams. Clearbanc co-founder Michele Romanow is on Cameo—and for a fee she’ll make a video telling someone of your choice to “stay the f— home.” All proceeds go to the Canadian Nurses Foundation.

Mortgage relief available: While the Big Six are coordinating efforts to limit operating hours, “special care will be given to branches in rural communities,” according to the Canadian Bankers Association. On Monday, The Logic reported RBC was offering financial relief for customers impacted by COVID-19. Now, both BMO and National Bank are offering mortgage-deferral payments as part of broader financial-relief programs. BMO’s program “could include deferral of payments on loans, mortgages and credit, reversal of fees for individuals with unanticipated fees, and accommodations for BMO Small Business and Business Banking clients,” BMO spokesperson James DeCosimo told The Logic. TD and National Bank are asking customers who are experiencing financial hardship to reach out. TD has also been proactively contacting customers who aren’t set up for online or mobile banking. 

300 per cent: That’s the size of the increase Toronto-based VPN service TunnelBear has seen in its business-focused TunnelBear for Teams service since early February, co-founder Ryan Dochuk told The Logic. The product is designed for small- and medium-sized firms, and an increasing number have staff working from home. Dochuk—now also an executive at McAfee, which acquired TunnelBear in March 2018—said the firm isn’t expecting “any issues scaling our network to meet the growing demand.”

Around the world: The U.S Federal Reserve will invoke emergency powers to establish a lending facility to support short-term commercial debt markets, similar to the one used during and after the 2008 financial crisis, as the government considers sending cheques directly to Americans to ease the economic pain. “We’re going to win, and I think we’re going to win faster than people think, I hope,” said President Donald Trump. The cheques are one aspect of what could be a trillion-dollar stimulus plan. The United Kingdom, whose Brexit talks have been put on hold, will deploy £20 billion of financial measures, as well as an initial backstop of £330 billion in loans, equivalent to 15 per cent of the country’s GDP; it has also launched a debt-purchasing scheme. Spain, now in its second day of lockdown, unveiled a €200-billion package that includes public guarantees for businesses and mortgage postponements for those who have lost their jobs, while France declared, “We are at war” with the virus, and prepared a €45-billion package with which to battle it. The French finance minister floated the nationalization of some companies “if necessary.” Israel is tracking the cellphones of coronavirus patients or those suspected of being infected, and the U.S. is reportedly weighing a similar approach. Euro 2020 has been postponed; and participants in Germany’s “Big Brother” reality TV show remain oblivious that any of this has happened. 

Postcard from the Bay: It’s day one of the shelter-in-place policy in the Bay Area—the strictest lockdown in the United States. Chris O’Neill, a San Francisco-based partner at Portag3 Ventures, spoke to The Logic at 11:35 a.m. PT. The city is “very sombre, eerily quiet,” he said, as almost seven million people get ready to work from home for the next three weeks. O’Neill’s kids are upstairs doing remote learning while he works. His dog interrupted a teleconference meeting, which set “an unusual tone for a business meeting, but in a pleasant way.” Outside, he said, it’s “unseasonably rainy” and snowing in some places, but the shops and resorts are closed. “It’s interesting to see people walking around the neighbourhood at this time of day. I see people I know, but we just wave and smile, as opposed to stop and chat.” There’s a strange renewed sense of community, said O’Neill—but there’s struggle, too: creating a new routine, setting boundaries. “It’s unnerving that this is only day one of three weeks,” he said. “Take extra stock. Be calm. Be kind. As uncomfortable as it is, we’ll survive this. We have to heed the call.” 

Drinking from the firehose: The virus is causing startups to reckon with their pre-existing operations issues, with stronger firms likely to weather the crisis and struggling ones likely to falter or fold, The Information reports. Social media companies are working together to combat COVID-19 misinformation. Facebook is paying staff a US$1,000 bonus each to help with the virus. Amazon will only receive vital items at its U.S., U.K. and European warehouses. You’ll need a Google account to use Verily’s COVID-19 screening portal. Britain is asking car manufacturers whether they can make ventilators. Uber and Lyft have suspended shared rides in the U.S. and Canada. Hollywood releases may be cancelled, but Universal will offer in-home rentals of new releases. NASA has postponed its climate-change missions. The uber-wealthy can’t get anywhere as private jets stop operations. And thanks to work-from-home policies and gym closures, Peloton’s stock is rising; do we like this woman’s husband, now? 

“Welcome to my bathroom. I’m your host, Stephen Colbert”: The late-night comedian greeted viewers from behind a curtain of bubbles, dressed in his usual suit jacket. “You’re watching a very special social-distancing edition of ‘The Late Show.’” If this 10-minute video doesn’t cheer you up, we suggest Google Chrome users host a Netflix Party.

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