The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for May 25
- Ottawa pushing provinces to bring in paid sick leave, Trudeau says.
- Pandemic drives demands for universal affordable internet and cell plans.
- Commercial rent relief program opens, but businesses say it will help few.
- Here's what needs to happen before we can all get vaccinated for COVID-19.
- Read more: Find the COVID-19 benefits and programs relevant to you.
Why reopening Montreal is a riskier bet than Quebec's premier is letting on
The riskiest part yet of Premier Francois Legault's plan to end Quebec's pandemic lockdown got underway today, as retail stores across the Montreal area opened for the first time in nearly two months. At the same time, factories in Quebec were also able to resume operating at full capacity. This follows the first weekend after the government ended its ban on small outdoor gatherings, and there was nary a Montrealer left inside.
So in the span of a few days, hundreds of thousands of people will be back working, shopping and commuting in the Canadian city where COVID-19 has spread most widely and been most deadly. The previous phases of Legault's plan were a safer bet, writes CBC's Jonathan Montpetit. When elementary schools, daycares and stores outside Montreal were allowed to reopen, transmission rates were already decreasing. And, so far, these areas of the province haven't seen a serious uptick in cases, hospitalizations or deaths. But there is a different order of uncertainty when it comes to lifting confinement measures in Montreal, and the suburbs that ring the island.
While there have been some improvements in the key indicators, it hasn't been enough to completely erase the fears of epidemiologists. The daily number of deaths is dropping and the average number of new cases is also inching downward despite more testing. "There are some small signs of hope, but I'm very worried about what will happen in the next few weeks," said Mathieu Maheu-Giroux, an assistant professor at McGill University who helps prepare projections for the province's public health research institute. But as Legault continues to lift restrictions, some key factors that have contributed to the ongoing disaster remain unaddressed.
The scope of the tragedy in Quebec can be explained in no small part by the staffing shortage it caused in the health-care system. On April 3, Quebec issued a directive urging long-term care home staff to avoid working in several different facilities, similar to a B.C. policy lauded for effectively halting the spread of COVID-19 in the province's nursing homes. But more than a month later, Quebec still hasn't been able to put an end to the practice. Given the continuing shortage of workers in the CHSLD network, it's either maintain the practice or leave patients without basic care. Health-care managers are forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Although the staffing situation has improved more recently, it is still unclear when care homes will be able to fully implement the policy.
The Legault government has said hospital capacity is one of its key criteria for determining whether Montreal is ready for looser confinement measures. One benchmark that Legault has cited — borrowed from New York — is hospitals having at least 30 per cent of their beds available, in case easing the lockdown leads to a surge in new cases. Quebec's hospital network was at 70 per cent capacity on May 16, but had climbed to 74.3 per cent by May 21, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Health. "In Montreal, things are very, very, very tight," Dr. Germain Poirier, head of Quebec's society of intensive-care specialists, said last week. "If we have a second wave, that might be difficult." From this vantage point, Montpetit writes, it appears the government is going forward less because Montreal is out of the danger zone and more because the heavy lockdown is no longer sustainable — and whether the health-care system can handle what happens next is now almost entirely in the hands of citizens following the conditions attached to their newly returned freedoms.
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Ottawa pushing provinces to bring in paid sick leave, Trudeau says
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is talking to the provinces about bringing in 10 days of paid sick leave for workers — something the NDP demanded in exchange for supporting the Liberals' plan to extend the suspension of the House of Commons during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The federal NDP conditioned its support for suspending the full House of Commons sitting schedule on getting a commitment from the Liberal government to bring in paid sick leave for all Canadians and supports for people with disabilities struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. A small number of members of Parliament gathered in Ottawa today to debate the Liberals' proposal to waive normal House of Commons sittings in favour of expanding the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a sort of replacement for most in-person sessions for the past month. Their motion proposes adding an additional day to the committee's current schedule of one in-person meeting per week (with fewer than three dozen MPs actually present) and two online meetings per week.
The Conservatives have indicated they want to do away with the special COVID-19 committee and bring back House of Commons sittings, including opposition days, private members' business and other activities that cannot occur within the committee format. Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said that while the motion unveiled by the Liberals over the weekend was an improvement over the way the special committee has been allowed to operate for the past month, it's still not enough. Bergen told CBC News on Sunday that despite the motion's shortcomings, the Conservatives don't plan to block it outright, while Bloc Québécois Leader Jean-Yves Blanchet said today his party isn't participating in negotiations on the return of Parliament.
Pandemic drives demands for universal affordable internet and cell plans
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted renewed calls for widespread affordable internet and wireless services. Alongside calls for a guaranteed basic income, some are calling for guaranteed universal, affordable internet access. "We are seeing now that with this crisis there are cracks, largely around affordability," said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. "And then there are other divides, rural divides."
In April, Lawford, the anti-poverty organization ACORN Canada and the National Pensioners Federation called on the federal government, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission and the country's internet and wireless providers to provide unlimited home internet access and targeted cell plans for low-income users. The organizations are also calling for a moratorium on price hikes. "You need the internet and wireless to connect you to society," Lawford said. "It has now become an essential to living." The groups called on the federal government to mandate that telecommunications companies offer unlimited home internet to all, at no extra cost, over the next several months. They also called for a doubling of cell phone data caps at no additional charge.
In a statement, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said through a spokesperson that his team remains in contact with telecommunications and internet providers to ensure Canadians remain connected. The statement did not say what the government is doing about internet and cell rates. Telecommunication companies have promoted and defended the affordability of their services during the pandemic; many, including the Big 3 — Rogers, Bell and Telus — have offered relief to customers, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. But Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith pointed out that Rogers, Telus and other telecommunications companies are "still profitable" after waiving fees during the pandemic, and suggested that companies eliminate these fees for good — calling them a tax on the poor.
Commercial rent relief program opens but businesses say it will help few
Commercial landlords can begin applying for a government rent relief program today, but struggling businesses say it will benefit few of them. The government also announced today a new customized financial advice service to help small businesses recover from the pandemic. The free hotline is meant to help vulnerable businesses with pressing financial needs navigate tax regulations and government supports to plan a path to recovery.
The Canada emergency commercial rent assistance (CECRA) program aims to reduce the rent owed by small business tenants by 75 per cent for April, May and June. Applications are staggered depending on the province where the property owner is located and how many tenants the landlord has; applications started today for property owners in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, with 10 tenants or fewer. Small Business Minister Mary Ng urged landlords to take advantage of the program to help their tenants. "This isn't just about doing the right thing. It is also making financial sense for you as a landlord, because if your tenant declares bankruptcy and is evicted, you will lose all the steady stream of income you depend on, and you would face additional costs as you search for the new tenants," she said.
However, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said many small businesses won't be able to make June rent without more assistance. Through a survey of its members, the organization found that most commercial tenants don't think they will qualify and don't think their landlord will participate.With many fearing eviction, the CFIB is calling on the government to provide direct access to the government portion of the program. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, announced today it is launching a small business relief fund — supported by the software company Salesforce — that will give 62 small businesses $10,000 grants to pay salaries, buy personal protective equipment, replenish materials or adapt business models to deal with COVID-19.
Is there any danger in wearing a mask?
CBC News readers, viewers and listeners have sent in countless questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including this one. If you have a question of your own, reach out at email@example.com.
As for the issue at hand: Actually, there can be, according to Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. If people are wearing masks for extended periods of time without properly cleaning them, Furness said, a bacterial biofilm can build up on the outside layer of your mask.
"If 30 million Canadians are wearing a cloth mask all day long, you'll see a noticeable spike in bacterial lung infections in a month or so," he said. "Think about it: our bodies are not designed to have a dirty cloth in front of our mouth all day." Furness said you should still wash your mask in your washing machine after each use. He also recommends boiling it once in a while to kill bacteria.
The big risk with face masks is self-contamination — that is, if you adjust your mask with dirty hands. The experts with whom CBC News spoke said good hand hygiene and not touching your face are key when wearing masks, especially when taking them on and off.
Doughnuts ... is there anything they can't do?
With this year's Pacific National Exhibition cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fair tried something new to deliver warm bags of sugary fried dough — and support the concessionaires who have lost their income. The mini-doughnut drive-through was initially a three-day event, but it was extended until today at 7 p.m. PT with permission from Vancouver Coastal Health because of high demand.
"The response has been quite honestly very humbling and overwhelming, not only for our concessionaires, but the love we've received from the people of the Lower Mainland and beyond for the PNE Fair has been absolutely overwhelming," said PNE spokesperson Laura Ballance. The PNE is planning more events through the summer with other food vendors.
Besides the nuggets of deep-fried deliciousness, the event provided income for four small businesses running the concession stands, and another dozen fair employees who have been temporarily laid off as a result of the fair's cancellation, said Ballance. "It was hard to hold back the tears at points as people said they drove hours to support us," Jason Au of Tin Lizzy Concessions said in a statement.
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With files from CBC News, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters