COVID-19 roundup: The expanded federal wage subsidy program, an emergency alert and staying away from the cottage

COVID-19 roundup: The expanded federal wage subsidy program, an emergency alert and staying away from the cottage

The federal government announced a massive expansion of its small- and medium-sized business wage subsidy program, increasing it from 10 per cent to 75 per cent.

"We have to get through these coming months of restricted economic activity," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a Friday morning press conference outside his residence in Ottawa. The move from 10 per cent to 75 per cent also represents a tacit acknowledgement that the initial package Ottawa announced early last week was insufficient to address the economic turmoil wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For those who have already had to lay off workers, we hope that you will consider rehiring them given this payroll support," said Trudeau. Early reports indicate that almost one million Canadians filed employment insurance applications, by far the most in recorded history.

Details for how the program will work, including which businesses will qualify and what the subsidy cap will be, were not immediately available. They are expected to become available on Monday. The program will be retroactive to March 15. Medium-sized businesses are classified as those with 100–499 employees, according to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Premier Doug Ford was quick to praise the move from his federal counterpart.

He reiterated this message in his daily afternoon press availability, saying, "I want to thank [the federal government] for listening to our calls for additional support for workers and businesses." He added, "If we support our businesses and protect our jobs, then when this storm passes we'll get back on our feet."

Praise for the expanded federal program crossed party lines, with Green Leader Mike Schreiner sharing his support.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce also expressed its support, although it added that it looked forward to further details. "This increase, as well as back-dating support to March 15, will help businesses keep their lights on and their workers on payroll. We look forward to more information on this measure soon," said CEO Rocco Rossi in a statement.

Emergency Alert

The premier gave advanced warning that the government would use its emergency alert system at 2 p.m. to push messages to Ontario cell phones in English and French.

The message informed recipients that if they are recent travellers then they are mandated by law to remain at home to stop the spread of the virus, and cannot visit friends or make trips to the grocery store.

The premier outlined why the government made the decision to disseminate the message. "One of the most important things we can do is keep the public informed," he explained. "When people are away they may not hear the news."

While it was the first time the government used the emergency alert system to share messages about the pandemic, the premier also indicated that they will likely use it again in the future. He added his gratitude that most Ontarians are following the best advice provided by experts. "I just want to say that the vast majority of people are cooperating."

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams echoed his support for the initiative in his daily afternoon press availability. "Sometimes we all need those little prompters on our electronic devices whether it’s a time-prompter, or a time-out alarm, and it’s just another way to do it, so I applaud the system for putting that in place."

Testing, testing

The premier received multiple questions about the availability of testing, which is seen as a crucial requirement to limit the spread of the virus and provide adequate care.

He acknowledged the importance of the issue, and suggested that there could be solutions around the corner that might improve the testing situation.

"I can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel when I talk to these pharma companies and more supplies, more technology are coming our way. And [we] were able to place some very large orders yesterday for this technology," he said, without specifying the technology. "We're doing everything we can to make sure we stop this spread and using every technology, every tool we have to make sure we we do exactly that. And the businesses are all stepping up helping out the technology ingenuity of the auto parts manufacturers as we've said in our past announcements," he added.

Ontario saw mixed success on the testing front in its Friday numbers. For the first day in March the numbers showed that the backlog for tests declined, with more tests being done than the number that people were approved for. Positive cases didn't go up as much as yesterday, but Williams warned not to read too much into the results for any given day.

While the 3,375 tests was the most conducted in one day in Ontario, it was also a far cry from the 5,000 tests that the government last week estimated it would be conducting at this point. The government announced yesterday that it is aiming to ramp up testing to almost 19,000 a day by April 17.

Not a time for the cottage 

Although he wasn't asked a question about the subject, Ford used the opportunity to share concerns he has heard from mayors in cottage country.

He urged Ontarians not to retreat to their cottages, as cottage country doesn't have the capacity — both in terms of health care and retail — to meet the needs of both summertime and year-round residents. "The hospitals don't have the capacity of urban settings," he warned.

He noted that he'd love to be at his family cottage in the Muskoka region, but it's not the choice to make at this time.

Price gouging 

The premier also reiterated his tough talk about price gougers who are trying to earn outsized profits due to coronavirus demand for some products.

"We're going to come down hard," Ford said, rhetoric that followed his admonishment on Thursday of Pusateri's, the gourmet grocer that was selling bottles of Lysol wipes for $29.99. The company later apologized.

The premier said the government will announce details of measures to prevent price gouging in the coming days.

-With files from Jessica Smith Cross and Sneh Duggal

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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