What's done and what work remains for Nova Scotia's COVID-19 assistance programs
Premier Stephen McNeil has said more help will come as needs are determined
The Nova Scotia government has announced more than a dozen programs intended to help address the strain COVID-19 is putting on people, the economy and communities. To date, many of those programs have either been fully or partially implemented.
Even before Premier Stephen McNeil first declared a state of emergency on March 22, his government announced a series of programs intended to help some of the most vulnerable members of society, later extending that effort to the business community.
The programs announced by McNeil's government, and their status, are as follows:
Additional income assistance (announced March 19)
Employment support and income assistance clients and anyone receiving the standard household rate, along with family members, received an automatic one-time $50 payment. This also included people living in homeless shelters and transition houses. The cost was $2.2 million and payments have been issued.
Feed Nova Scotia assistance (announced March 19)
Feed Nova Scotia received $1 million to help support its provincial network. Payment has been issued.
Senior safety programs and Community Links (announced March 19)
- $230,000 in emergency funding went to Community Links and senior safety programs the week of March 23. Senior safety programs received $10,000 each and Community Links received $50,000. The intention is to respond to emerging issues, expand hours and support the needs of vulnerable older adults in their community.
$15M internet acceleration program (announced March 20)
The money comes from a previously-announced internet trust, administered by Develop Nova Scotia, and is intended to motivate companies to connect communities plagued by poor internet service sooner. Develop Nova Scotia says 500 homes in the Shelburne area have been connected since the trust was announced in February.
Cash flow and credit access (announced March 20)
Government has compiled a list of all government fees and payments deferred. Changes to the small business loan guarantee program, including deferring principle and interest payments until June 30, have been implemented. Enhancements to the program are being developed. The value of these initiatives is approximately $160 million, according to the province.
Expanded hires for 811 (announced March 24)
Normally, 811 has approximately 55 staff, with registered nurses making up the majority. Approximately 80 new people have been added to the service to handle increased call volumes. The service has yet to determine the cost of the new staff.
Rent-deferral program (announced March 27)
The deadline for landlords to register for the program was April 3. A total of 379 landlords registered, representing 1,157 tenants. In total, $10.7 million in rent has been deferred. Dalhousie University is administering the program.
iPads for seniors (announced March 27)
800 iPads are on order, to be used at long-term care homes to help residents connect with family, at a cost of approximately $720,000.
Assistance for small food banks (announced March 27)
$55,000 went to community food banks. Funding was allocated based on the volume of clients the food bank serves. Payments have been issued.
Cellphones for vulnerable people (announced March 27)
The province partnered with Telus to provide cellphone service to some of the most vulnerable income assistance clients who might have no way to communicate if they have to self-isolate. The company is providing calling, texting and data, at a value of $5,000 per month, for as long as is required under the temporary program. The Community Services Department purchased 100 phones at a cost of approximately $50,000 and will start issuing them as needed soon.
Funding for transition homes (announced March 27)
Government provided $235,000 in emergency response grants in the amount of $10,000 to each transition house and other organizations that serve vulnerable women and their children. Payments have been issued. Talk of more support is ongoing, according to the government.
Education learning packages (announced March 30)
The province is paying SaltWire Network $50,000 biweekly to print and distribute learning packages to students while schools are closed. The first run included about 340,000 packages delivered to homes.
$50M fund administered by Dalhousie University (announced April 2):
- Applications for two programs, the worker emergency bridge fund ($20 million) and the small business impact grant ($20 million), opened on April 10. The government expects recipients to have their funds by the end of the month. A Dalhousie spokesperson said the school's Faculty of Management will assess applications to ensure they are eligible according to criteria established by the government. Under the supervision of faculty in the School of Business accounting group, 20-25 advanced bachelor of commerce and MBA students will review applications for completeness and eligibility. Complex cases will be handled directly by faculty. McNeil said Tuesday that so far 3,900 people have applied for the worker emergency fund and 1,400 people have applied for the small business grant. There remains $10 million in the fund for future use.
Money coming from multiple budget years
The premier has said more funding and programming could come as necessary and existing programs could receive more money if it's required.
What isn't clear is how all of this will affect the province's bottom line.
The $50 million Dalhousie is overseeing will be funded from the 2019-20 budget year. According to a government spokesperson, some departments will request additional appropriations from the 2019-20 fiscal year to cover their initiatives, while others might be able to pay for programs from their existing 2020-21 budget allocation or need more money from the current fiscal year.
"We will continue to exercise good fiscal management, but our priority is the health and safety of Nova Scotians and the sustainability of our business community," Michelle Stevens said in a statement.
Opposition leaders support, but expect more help needed
For their part, both opposition party leaders say now is not the time to be worried about balanced budgets. Tory Leader Tim Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill said they support programs announced so far and both expect more help will come as the government learns what is working, what isn't working and what gaps remain.
"Unprecedented times require unprecedented action," Houston said in a phone interview.
"We want the province to get through this in the best possible shape we can with the fewest deaths and [limited] strain on our health system and certainly with our economy ready to go again."
A concern for Houston is whether the rent-deferral program helps enough business operators, as well as whether there's sufficient assistance for retail shops.
For Burrill, the province's ban on evictions for people whose incomes have been affected by the pandemic is a good start, but he and his party would like to see a blanket ban on evictions and rent increases retroactive to the beginning of March.
"We have to remember that the whole pandemic began when we were already in the midst of an unprecedented housing pressure," said Burrill, who called the issue the "No. 1 dominant concern" constituents bring to him.
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