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In today's Morning Brief, we look at the state of the Canadian real estate market amid the coronavirus pandemic. We also look ahead to the release of the federal government's COVID-19 forecasts, and why we're not testing everybody for the coronavirus.

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Canadian real estate markets hit hard by pandemic

Canada's real estate industry appears to be heading into a deep freeze despite the warming spring weather. Though sales figures started off relatively strong in March in many parts of the country, they fell swiftly as the COVID-19 pandemic grew and stricter protective measures were put in place.

"It's uncharted territory, a completely different ballgame, and we're learning everything on the go," Vancouver real estate agent David Hutchinson he said as he got his cellphone ready to do a virtual showing from an empty condominium.

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Greater Vancouver's real estate board, for example, released figures showing sales for March overall were up 46 per cent compared to last March. However, by the end of the month, weekly statistics showed a dramatic slowdown, falling by about half compared to the first part of the month.

In Toronto, where home sales were up 49 per cent in the first 14 days of March compared to last year, they plummeted by 16 per cent as the month closed. 

Toronto chartered accountant and real estate agent Scott Ingram expects April sales to be far below historical averages. 

"Not in my time watching the Toronto real estate market have I seen sales slow right down as quickly as this," he wrote in an email. "Not even back in April 2017, when the Ontario government brought in its Ontario Fair Housing Plan with the 15 per cent non-resident speculation tax," among other measures. 

Alberta markets could be facing the strongest head winds. On top of the pandemic, the province has been slammed by additional layoffs caused by dramatically lower oil prices.

Calgary real estate agent Alicia Ryan says there are always some people in circumstances that force them to buy or sell, but others should consider waiting. "Not everybody needs to sell right now, and if you don't need to sell, we're telling our clients hold off until things settle down a bit." Read more on this story here.

Pandemic Easter treats

(Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

French chocolate maker Jean-Francois Pre displays Easter eggs shaped as the coronavirus yesterday in his pastry shop ahead of Easter celebrations in Landivisiau, France.

In brief

Canadians will get a reality check this morning on the state of the economy when Statistics Canada releases March unemployment figures. As CBC's Kyle Bakx writes, the release will only provide a partial glimpse since the survey merely reflects the period up to mid-March. Economists suggest Canada's unemployment rate right now is likely around 20 per cent. Earlier this week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveiled projections for the province's unemployment rate to reach 25 per cent. Those are shocking figures for a country accustomed to single-digit unemployment, but that's what happens in a pandemic when a nation deliberately shuts down its economy. Read more about the unemployment situation.

A second important figure to be released today will be COVID-19 projections from the federal government. CBC's Éric Grenier writes that the projections that governments across the country are relying on now are imperfect but still important, because they allow governments to assess their capacity to handle the spread of the virus, explain the reasons behind restrictive preventative measures and prepare for the future. Read more about what the federal government's coronavirus modelling can tell us, and what it can't.

Over the past week, laboratory backlogs for coronavirus testing have cleared, but restrictions on who will be tested still remain in most parts of Canada. As CBC's Kelly Crowe writes, the hard truth is that testing will continue to be limited, even in Ontario, which has just announced it will soon be able to test 19,000 people a day. So why is testing such a big problem? The simple answer — the COVID-19 tsunami caught almost everybody off-guard. Read more on why Canada isn't testing everyone for the virus.

Watch | Ontario needs wider criteria to expand COVID-19 testing

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WestJet says 6,400 workers will be brought back onto its payroll once the federal government has approved an emergency wage subsidy program. Company CEO Ed Sims cautioned late yesterday that there might not be enough work for the rehired employees, but noted "it does help them make ends meet." Last month, WestJet announced it was cutting roughly half of its 14,000 employees with the elimination of 6,900 positions. Air Canada also said yesterday that it was rehiring 16,500 laid-off workers with assistance from the same federal wage subsidy program. Read more about the rehiring of the airline employees.

For the six million people who live with a disability in Canada, measures surrounding COVID-19 have posed challenges, from increasing isolation to families not being able to get respite support to broader fears around contracting the disease. The federal government has been rolling out financial support for Canadians, but is hasn't addressed the specific issues encountered by people with disabilities and their families and caregivers. "We really need to hear some statements about people with disabilities and their families, coming directly from the prime minister," said Krista Carr, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living. Read more about how the pandemic is affecting those with disabilities.

Since the pandemic began, California hospitals have been preparing for an influx of COVID-19 patients — the dreaded surge. It has yet to arrive. Evidence is mounting that the state's early action — including the first statewide stay-at-home order in the U.S. — helped slow the spread. "It's eerily quiet in our emergency room and in the hospital," says Dr. Jahan Fahimi of University of California San Francisco Health. Read more about the scene in California from CBC's Kim Brunhuber.

Now for some good news to start your Thursday: After weeks of isolation, a 96-year-old Calgary woman got a birthday surprise from her family on Tuesday with a little help from the Calgary Fire Department. Family members lined the street in front of Ruth Ross's home, spaced two metres apart, as grandchildren in birthday hats leaned out of car windows to cheer. Shortly after, to Ruth's delight, two fire trucks drove by, blasting their horns and a rendition of Happy Birthday over their loudspeakers. The fire department's drive-by birthday program is intended to brighten the mood during the coronavirus pandemic. It's received more than 4,000 requests since being announced last week. Read more about the fire department's birthday program here.

Front Burner: After the lockdown: Life returns to Wuhan

It's a historic moment in Wuhan, China: After 76 days, the city where COVID-19 first emerged has ended its extreme lockdown, allowing people to enter and leave the city. We speak to a Wuhan resident who has just been able to leave her apartment complex for the first time since January, and to a journalist who tells us how government authorities are trying to prevent future spikes of COVID-19.

Today in history: April 9

1917: Four Canadian divisions begin an assault on Vimy Ridge in northeast France. British and French troops had been unsuccessful in earlier attempts to capture the ridge, a key German defensive position. By April 14, the Canadians had won the battle, earning them recognition as an elite force. Almost 3,600 Canadians were killed in the fighting.

1931: Richard Hatfield, New Brunswick's longest-serving premier, is born in Woodstock, N.B.

1959: U.S. space agency NASA names the seven astronauts for the Mercury space missions — Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton.

1969: The British-French supersonic aircraft Concorde makes its first test flight from Bristol to Fairford, Gloucestershire, U.K. The flight lasted 22 minutes.

1987: The Supreme Court of Canada rules the Constitution does not guarantee the right to strike.

1995: Montreal-based Seagram acquires 80 per cent of entertainment conglomerate MCA from Matsushita Electric Industrial of Japan for $5.7 billion US.

2002: An estimated one million people line the streets of London to bid a final farewell to the Queen Mother, who died 10 days earlier at age 101. Following her funeral at Westminster Abbey, the mother of Queen Elizabeth was interred at Windsor Castle.

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters

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