News

COVID-19 roundup: Wage-subsidy details delayed

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks at a press conference on the federal government’s economic response to COVID-19 in Ottawa in March 2020.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks at a press conference on the federal government’s economic response to COVID-19 in Ottawa in March 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
article-aa

This article is a preview of The Logic’s Daily Briefing newsletter, sent every weekday.

Get complimentary access to award-winning reporting to navigate these unprecedented times. Sign up now.

It’s day 21 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is now 8,467 as of publication time. The Canadian death toll stands at 100. On their respective 21st day, the U.K. had 9,529 cases, the U.S. had 43,781 and Italy 21,157.* The following day, the U.K. jumped to 11,658 cases, the U.S. 54,856 and Italy 24,747.

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has surpassed the number of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. In the U.S., 3,170 people have died from the virus, surpassing the 2,977 victims of the 9/11 attacks.

A day’s delay: Specific information about which firms will be eligible for the 75 per cent wage subsidy announced by Prime Minister Trudueau on Friday will have to wait until tomorrow. Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Small Business Minister Mary Ng were slated to provide more information today, but postponed to Wednesday, as the government continues to iron out the details. As tomorrow is April 1, that means many businesses will start a new quarter and pay period not knowing whether or to what degree they’ll be eligible for assistance. Ottawa has said the program will be open to firms showing virus-related revenue declines of 30 per cent and will be capped at $847 a week. Meanwhile, startups that employ large Canadian teams but that are incorporated in the U.S. told The Logic they’re concerned about being excluded, based on criteria from a past iteration of the measure which restricted eligibility to Canadian-controlled firms.

BDC’s matching funds: BDC Capital is set to announce a matching program to support Canadian venture capital, The Logic has learned. The venture arm of the Business Development Bank of Canada will help finance startups by matching funds from qualified venture capital investors using convertible notes. The program, which could be announced as early as Thursday, will be available to BDC-backed companies as well as those outside its existing portfolios, according to sources familiar with the program. The venture capital community is anticipating a plunge in early-stage startup funding, as investors stop taking meetings with new founders and focus instead on damage control within their portfolios. The matching program would come on the heels of a similar initiative announced in France, where public investment bank Bpifrance is putting up €80 million (nearly $125 million) to match private investors.

In the markets: Wall Street dipped on the last day of the first quarter, ending the worst quarter for U.S. stocks since the 2008 financial crisis. According to Peter Oppenheimer, chief equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, Wall Street stocks took just 16 days to fall 20 per cent from their record high; the previous record for quickest tumble into a bear market was 44 days, set in 1929. The Dow Jones fell 1.65 per cent Tuesday, while the S&P 500 lost 1.44 per cent and the Nasdaq dropped 0.95 per cent. The markets dropped despite reports that China’s economy may be showing signs of renewed life—with venture funds starting to make deals again—and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s announcement of a temporary lending facility that will allow foreign central banks in Canada, Japan and Europe to convert their holdings of Treasury bonds into dollars. Meanwhile, banks in the U.K will end dividend payments, while the Bank of Canada is looking to buy approximately $200 billion in government debt. Oil prices slightly rebounded Tuesday after hitting multiyear lows at the start of the week. The S&P/TSX Composite rose 2.61 per cent; it has plunged 21 per cent this quarter, with Shopify’s stock a clear winner amid the tumult. The Canadian dollar held at 71 cents to the U.S. dollar.

“Made-in-Canada supply chains”: The Public Health Agency of Canada is getting $1.5 billion over two years for testing and to buy personal protective equipment and other health-care tools to limit the COVID-19 outbreak. Ottawa has signed contracts with Canadian startups for some of those supplies, Trudeau announced Tuesday. The government will buy 100 portable DNA-testing machines and one million kits from Spartan Bioscience for $78 million, while Thornhill Research will make 500 ventilators. It has also ordered “tens of millions” of masks from Medicom. The federal Strategic Innovation Fund will give the Montreal-based company an as-yet-undisclosed amount to set up a Canadian manufacturing facility, “not only to meet [the] domestic-capacity requirement, but ultimately to produce masks for other jurisdictions in the future, as well,” said Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. As of noon yesterday, the government had received over 3,200 emails in response to its call for Canadian firms to offer their products, services or manufacturing capacity for antiviral efforts, and it’s responded to 2,900, Bains said.

Ottawa’s other flagship innovation program is also joining the antiviral effort. Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), the Hamilton, Ont.-based supercluster, has launched a $50-million COVID-19 program to back the development of new tests, vaccines and medical equipment. It will “prioritize projects that can have an immediate impact” in the next four to 12 weeks, director of strategic partnerships and programs Robbie MacLeod told The Logic; members and other participating firms won’t be required to match the supercluster’s funding for such undertakings, as they normally would. NGen has received over 530 submissions so far, and approved five. The program’s budget is coming from the organization’s existing $192 million in federal money. The Vancouver-based Digital Technology Supercluster has also set up a $60-million COVID-19 program for projects focused on health-care systems, community health and the emergency response, as well as diagnostic and therapeutic software.

“Last night, we did something deliberate—we went around in a circle and everyone spoke about their day”: Canadian astronaut and Creative Destruction Lab chair Chris Hadfield detailed his quarantine routine in his two-bedroom cottage near Sarnia, Ont.—which he describes as being akin to a spaceship—where he is spending time with his family, including his four-year-old granddaughter, and working on a spectroscopy device he hopes can analyze your blood for COVID-19.

Cross-country checkup: Ontario is set to announce a new $50-million program that will “look for a group of companies that have ideas on how we can grow tomorrow,” Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli said on a Council of Canadian Innovators conference call Tuesday morning. The measure will be administered through the existing development funds for Southwestern and Eastern Ontario, but companies from all parts of the province will be eligible. “It would be your ideas that we want,” he said, noting that the money is “set aside specifically for responses to help us in our recovery.” Fedeli’s office declined to answer The Logic’s questions about the program, saying the announcement is imminent. The province will keep schools closed until at least May 4. Yesterday, Premier Doug Ford used his own truck to pick up 100,000 masks and 4,600 bottles of hand sanitizer donated by a Markham, Ont.-based dental-supply company.

Meanwhile, Canadian dentists aren’t receiving insurance payments despite shutting down their businesses per COVID-19 restrictions. The country’s transit agencies are asking for over $1 billion in emergency federal assistance. Several members of Parliament, including Finance Minister Bill Morneau, took health precautions after learning the executive director of the World Food Programme, with whom they had met earlier this month, had tested positive for COVID-19. Saskatchewan will no longer limit the number of hours a trucker can drive per day if they are hauling essential goods; the drivers will also be exempt from the 14-day isolation period. Lac La Ronge Indian Band, the largest First Nation in the province, has passed emergency measures to restrict access to their territory in an effort to keep COVID-19 cases at zero. The Alberta government has slashed the budget of the Canadian Energy Centre, better known as the province’s energy war room, by some 90 per cent for the next three months. An employee at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre has tested positive for COVID-19. Hundreds of Canadian airline workers are in quarantine after possibly being exposed to the disease; at least 14 have tested positive. The last of the Canadians repatriated from the Grand Princess Cruise ship were released from quarantine today. Toronto has cancelled all events until June 30, including the annual Pride parade. The federal government is offering Canadians stuck in India a special flight home, but it will cost them $2,900. And in the latest instance of coronavirus-related crime, Hamilton police have charged a 29-year-old man with conducting non-essential business: dealing drugs.

Bay Street to Main Street: 

  • RBC CEO Dave McKay has promised staff the bank will not lay anyone off this year as a result of COVID-19. TD has promised its employees the same.
  • Home health-care software company AlayaCare is partnering with restaurant chain Freshii to deliver prepared meals to at-risk seniors.
  • The National Research Council of Canada is teaming up with biopharmaceutical firm VBI Vaccines to develop a vaccine that could target COVID-19, as well as other diseases caused by different coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS.
  • Video-game developer Eidos-Montreal is donating proceeds from its Deus Ex games to Food Banks of Quebec to help with COVID-19 relief efforts.
  • Smart-glasses company North is donating 60,000 gloves and other medical gear to health-care workers.

Crowdsourcing the pandemic: Conquer COVID-19 is a Toronto-based volunteer group made up of doctors, engineers and tech executives, among others, looking to distribute medical supplies to health-care workers. It’s distributed 125 baby monitors to hospitals in Ontario, helping health-care workers monitor patients with COVID-19 while reducing contact with them. The group is also collecting ventilators, masks, diapers and tablets, so critically ill people can communicate with their families. The group started a week ago with six volunteers, and now has over 50 people helping out; it’s started to send supplies to Quebec, as well. For now, it’s trying to move quickly. “We’re the 101st Airborne. We get dropped in first, until the main invasion forces come in. So we’ll beat the crap out of the Nazis or COVID-19, and then we wait for these invasion forces to come and they’ll take care of the rest,” Sulemaan Ahmed, the group’s co-founder, told The Logic. 

Those reinforcements may be on their way. The group has secured commitments from a number of large Canadian firms looking to donate products and, at a press conference earlier today, Trudeau lauded the organization. “They have been able to get a commitment from Bombardier, 3M … to produce personal protective equipment,” he said. Other groups are stepping up, as well. Burnaby, B.C.-based D-Wave is making its quantum computers free for anyone fighting the virus. Montreal-based Element AI has a free platform to help researchers find patterns in academic papers about the virus. In Toronto, public-interest designer Zahra Ebrahim launched the app COVID TO, which connects people with resources to navigate the crisis; about 15,000 people have used it so far. A group of volunteers created awebsite, which they say uses source code from the founders of Instagram, to let people buy gift cards to Toronto restaurants.

Jobs wanted: The immediate labour-market shock from the COVID-19 crisis has been greater in Canada than the United States, according to new data from Indeed. The hiring website found that job postings in Canada have fallen by 24 per cent, versus the U.S.’s 15 per cent decline. The hardest-hit sectors include hospitality and tourism, aviation and food preparation and service, all down over 30 per cent relative to last year’s trend. Due to the lockdown, postings are now also declining in industries like construction, accounting and legal. According to Bloomberg, daily unemployment benefit claims in Canada have been rising by over 50 per cent; between March 16 and 25, some 1.55 million Canadians applied. Meanwhile, Unifor is asking nursing homes to schedule all casual and part-time workers to work full-time hours in one home to slow the spread of COVID-19, as well as a $3 hourly top-up for personal support workers.

Briefly: 

  • The New York Attorney General’s office is investigating Zoom—which has seen usage surge with the COVID-19 pandemic—concerned that the company has not addressed security flaws “that could enable malicious third parties to, among other things, gain surreptitious access to consumer webcams.”
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of a coronavirus-testing kit by Bodysphere that can detect if a patient has COVID-19 within two minutes.
  • Big Tech firms including Google and Facebook are looking for a deferral on a digital tax set to take effect in India on April 1.
  • Walmart will start taking its U.S. employees’ temperatures at the start of shifts and offering them masks.
  • An Amazon worker said he was fired after he led a strike at a New York warehouse over health and safety conditions.
  • The CEO of Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King and Tim Hortons, has assured there will be no layoffs.
  • Apple has committed to paying its contract workers an hourly wage just days after they were told they would be suspended without pay.
  • Airbnb has earmarked US$250 million to reimburse hosts for some costs related to cancelled bookings.
  • JPMorgan’s alternative-investment arm is raising up to US$10 billion to boost its spending power amid the pandemic.
  • Weekly podcast audiences in the U.S. decreased by eight per cent last week.
  • Xerox has abandoned plans for a hostile takeover of HP, concluding the deal was no longer prudent given the current economic conditions.

Postcard from San Francisco: Elizabeth Caley didn’t expect to be raising money for her stealth-mode genomics startup in the middle of a pandemic. “We have a thesis that we can help with infectious disease, not by focusing on people, but on the places they are, on the spaces they’re in,” she told The Logic. The Canadian tech executive, former senior director of technology at the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, has been at home for over two weeks. “It’s oddly calm outside. I see people walking their dogs, delivery people, the occasional jogger,” she said. Out her window she can also see the Grand Princess cruise ship, the site of a mass COVID-19 outbreak from which the Canadian government airlifted more than 230 people. At night, she can hear medical workers coming home. “I think half of my building are medical professionals. I can hear them coming and going all hours of the night. I’ve wanted to reach out through the walls and give them hugs.” Caley typically flew to Toronto once every eight weeks to mentor startups participating in the Creative Destruction Lab’s accelerator. For the first time, however, she’s planning to call in to a Montreal session. “This pandemic might actually mean that more mentors can get in front of more entrepreneurs without the travel,” she said. Caley has been getting her groceries delivered once a week, taking conference calls while walking in her courtyard and keeping in touch with friends and family back home. “I love the text messages. Every time the [U.S. government] does something silly, I get messages saying, ‘Come home now.’”

Around the world: The European Commission is looking to set up an €80-billion to €100-billion reinsurance package to support countries with increasing jobless claims. Spain has announced a package of measures for low-income renters hit by the crisis, including banning evictions for six months, extending rental contracts about to expire and granting them micro-credits with zero interest and no commission. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, where the majority of residents are ultra-Orthodox, confirmed COVID-19 cases have nearly doubled in the last three days, and is now close to the number of cases in Jerusalem, whose population is four times bigger. There are just three ventilators in the Central African Republic, a country of almost five million people.

The U.K.’s senior ministers met digitally via Zoom for the first time, as several of its members self-isolate and the country enters its second week of a strict lockdown. Meanwhile, the FBI has received multiple reports of online conferences and classrooms hosted on the platform being interrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language (known as “Zoom-bombing”). China, which is slowly emerging from a lockdown, is reporting high levels of divorce filings, with one city clerk saying, “Trivial matters in life led to the escalation of conflicts.” The virus may also be disrupting life underwater: the entire crew of one of Russia’s naval missile submarines is reportedly in quarantine after possibly being exposed to the virus—though other submariners may be the only people in the world with no knowledge of what’s happening. “They won’t have experienced the crisis as we did, with a bit of fear, the lockdown,” one serving officer told The Associated Press. “So for them it will be quite a surprise. They will learn the history, but it will be a history that is related to them.”

Goats town: With humans locked down in their homes, a herd of 122 goats has taken over the Welsh seaside town of Llandudno. “They are curious, goats are,” said a town councillor, “and I think they are wondering what’s going on like everybody else.”

* Numbers aren’t adjusted for population because the virus spreads at roughly the same pace regardless of country size. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

Our reporting team is working tirelessly around the clock to deliver the very latest information on the COVID-19 crisis. If you like our journalism, please consider subscribing. You can get a subscription today for more than $100 off your first year.