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Alberta oil and gas 'on life support' in wake of economic blows, premier says

Albertans who have no income while coronavirus pushes them into isolation can apply for one-time cash relief from the Alberta government.

22 new cases of COVID-19 in Alberta

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced an economic relief package to help people and businesses cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. 3:12

Albertans who have no income while the COVID-19 pandemic pushes them into isolation can apply for one-time cash relief from the Alberta government.

Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday the province will next week hand out $573 cash payments per week to people who are in isolation for two weeks with no pay or other benefits.

But as the premier announced emergency spending to keep potentially infectious people home and stave off immediate financial hardship, he warned of dire economic times facing the province — likely for the rest of the year.

"We must begin to prepare ourselves for a time of adversity unlike any we have seen since the 1930s in this province," Kenney said in an address to the legislature.

Although the global economy may begin to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer, Kenney said Alberta's finances could be slammed for longer if an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia drags on and leaves the price of Canadian oil in the basement.

"We must begin to prepare ourselves for a time of adversity unlike any we have seen since the 1930s in this province," Alberta premier Kenney said in an address to the legislature on March 18, 2020. 23:48

Alberta's oil and gas industry is "on life support," as share values plummet, he told reporters.

If public health computer models are correct, the peak in the number of cases of COVID-19 could hit Alberta in four to five weeks, Kenney said.

The number of cases in the province is rising daily, hitting 119 on Wednesday.

Isolation measures are keeping many Albertans at home, and forced and voluntary facility and business closures are putting people out of work.

"We have had to weigh lives against livelihoods," Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Wednesday. She said she knows people are suffering with anxiety and financial strain.

Student loan payments, corporate tax breaks among short-term relief

It's these dire conditions prompting the provincial government to roll out short-term financial relief measures, the premier said.

Among them are the cash payments that help people in isolation without income pay their bills while they wait for new emergency federal benefits to kick in April 1. Government estimates this will cost the treasury around $50 million.

Utility companies have agreed not to disconnect any customers for three months. Consumers can defer electricity and natural gas bill payments for up to 90 days, Kenney said.

Similar to Wednesday's federal government promise, post-secondary graduates can take a six-month reprieve from provincial student loan payments.

Corporate income taxes will be deferred until Aug. 31, which should give businesses a $1.5-billion reprieve, Kenney said. The government hopes this move will help businesses keep employees working through an impending recession.

Alberta Treasury Branch customers can defer payments on loans, mortgages and lines of credit for up to six months. Small businesses can also defer payments and may be able to borrow more.

Kenney said his government would roll out more aid measures in the coming days. He's also struck a working group, led by economist Jack Mintz, to strategize how the government can best stimulate the provincial economy under such trying conditions.

The premier called on citizens to "redevelop a sense of social solidarity" and help one another.

NDP wants more relief for renters, unemployed

Opposition leader Rachel Notley said Wednesday she was happy to see reassurances folks would not be cut off from utilities and could receive short-term financial help.

She said the government should take further steps, including a legal protection for renters, so they cannot be evicted for missing rent payments during the pandemic.

The province should also match a federal subsidy for small businesses to help protect jobs, she said. She requested the province match a $300 yearly federal government boost to families through child benefits.

"We know that this is a very, very challenging time for this province and this country," Notley said.

She pushed the premier for assurances health-care system leaders' requests for more money to treat patients with COVID-19 will be met with funds beyond the $21 billion approved in Tuesday's provincial budget.

Across the aisle of the legislature, Kenney nodded his head, yes.

"We will spare no expense in the medical fight against the pandemic," he later told reporters. 

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