London, Ont., restaurants face uncertain future amid COVID-19

Like so many others across the country, London, Ont., restaurant owners are facing an uncertain future as the novel coronavirus pandemic forces businesses to close their doors for an indeterminate amount of time.

A survey from not-for-profit Restaurants Canada estimates 800,000 jobs have been lost in the sector across Canada, with 300,000 of those in Ontario.

Nicole Istifan, owner of The Singing Chef at Fanshawe Park and Hyde Park roads, said it’s been difficult not just from a business perspective, but personally as well.

“It’s hard, because these people that work for us, they’re amazing people, this is their full-time income. This is what’s paying the bills for their families,” she said.

“We have so many regular customers that come in that we wonder how they’re doing. We have a lot of elderly customers that do come in and see us for their daily breakfast, their daily lunch and we miss seeing them.”

The restaurant tried offering delivery and pickup services, but Nicole says it just wasn’t feasible.

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“We’re so thankful to those customers that did give us a call and place a pickup order, however, there just wasn’t enough of it to keep that going so we made a tough decision about three days later to close the doors and just take this time with the family, be home, self-isolate, and just do our part.”

Mike Smith owns a handful of bars and restaurants in London and acknowledges it’s “tough all over.”

Smith says since the buildings are closed to the public, they’re also offering some work painting and cleaning.

While Smith acknowledges that the future is uncertain, he stressed there have been many examples of kindness and thoughtfulness from customers.

He highlighted the actions of one man in particular.

“Those sales aren’t enough, but it’s that kind of spirit. She had a tear in her eye because it made her feel good, made me feel good to see people like that.”

Smith says that same man visited another restaurant in the city and offered to buy $1,000 in gift certificates for when local restaurants do reopen.

“I said why don’t we wait ’til we’re close to that point in case we never reopen. I don’t want you being out the money.”

–With a file from The Canadian Press.

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Portugal tightens Easter travel restrictions due to coronavirus

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s government tightened restrictions on movement to stop the spread of the coronavirus during the normally busy Easter holiday period, closing all airports to commercial flights and banning domestic travel from April 9-13.

“The virus doesn’t travel by itself,” Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters. “This Easter period is a particularly critical time and that’s why it is essential to restrict movement in the national territory.”

Between April 9 and 13, a popular period for Portuguese abroad to travel to visit their families, airports will be shut to commercial flights, and only flights repatriating citizens or transporting goods will be allowed to operate.

In addition, people will not be allowed to travel outside the municipalities where they live during the five-day period, except for work reasons.

After Easter, airports will reopen but flights will only be allowed to transport one third of their passenger capacity.

Costa said gatherings of more than five people were also banned, with the exception of larger families.

To avoid the spread of coronavirus in prisons, the government decided to give partial pardons to those facing two-year prison sentences or those who only have two years left behind bars.

Prisoners who committed violent crimes, such as homicide and domestic violence, will not be pardoned.

The measures were announced on the same day the country’s parliament approved the extension of a state of emergency by another 15 days as the number of deaths from coronavirus rose to over 200.

“If decreeing a state of emergency was necessary 15 days ago, it is essential that we renew it today,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa told parliament. “All the effort we have made so far will be compromised if it does not continue.”

Portugal has confirmed 9,034 coronavirus cases and 209 deaths, with health authorities expecting the outbreak to plateau at the end of May.

Government measures to bolster the finances of families and businesses during the outbreak include support for salaries of workers whose jobs are on hold and credit lines for hard-hit industries like tourism, textiles and agriculture.

Still, lawmakers in Thursday’s debate appealed to companies and the financial sector to step up their support for families and businesses, with opposition leader Rui Rio stating it would be an “embarrassment” if banks posted profits in 2020 and 2021.

“Banks owe a lot to the Portuguese. Now it is their obligation to help,” he said. “They must not benefit from this crisis.”

Left-wing parties Left Bloc and the Communist Party flagged that workers were still being made to come to the office and many were losing their jobs despite government promises to prioritise keeping people in employment.

“We cannot allow the state of emergency to be a pretext for a law of the jungle in the lives and rights of workers,” said Communist lawmaker Joao Oliveira.

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Spain's coronavirus deaths top 10,000, yet there is 'glimpse of hope'

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s death toll from the coronavirus rose above 10,000 on Thursday after a record 950 people died overnight, but health officials saw a glimmer of hope with the epidemic slowing in terms of proportional daily increases in infections and deaths.

Spain has the world’s second-highest death toll after Italy at 10,003 but Thursday’s one-day toll was the highest for any country since the start of the epidemic.

The number of registered coronavirus cases rose about 8% from Wednesday to 110,238, the ministry said. The total deaths rose by just over 10%, about the same rate as the previous day.

However, the daily increase in infections in percentage terms has been slowing gradually since March 25, when reported cases rose by just over 20%.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told parliament. “A glimpse of hope: the curve has stabilized. We have reached … the peak of the curve and we have started the slowdown phase.”

Spain has been in a lockdown since March 14, allowing residents to leave their homes only for essential trips. This week it tightened the measures, with only employees in key sectors permitted to travel to and from work.

Laying bare the scale of the outbreak’s economic impact, data showed on Thursday that Spain has shed an unprecedented 900,000 jobs since it went into lockdown, with temporary layoffs affecting at least another 620,000.

Social security data also showed that around 80,000 workers are off sick with coronavirus, while 170,000 more are on sick leave because they are isolated after coming into contact with someone with the virus.

Nursing homes, whose elderly residents are highly vulnerable to the disease, have been particularly hard hit.

Clad in white protective gear, funeral service workers could be seen taking out coffins from a nursing home in Leganes on the outskirts of Madrid, where 50 residents had died since the start of the epidemic according to EFE news agency, and putting them in a van, Reuters footage showed.

Later, ambulances picked up various uninfected residents to take them to other homes. Two-thirds of 150 residents tested in the Vitalia home on Wednesday had coronavirus, EFE said. Vitalia administration was not immediately available for comment.

The separatist government of Spain’s Catalonia region – the country’s second worst-hit after Madrid – abandoned its initial reluctance and asked the national military to send medical teams and help it tackle the coronavirus.

Last month, an official of the Catalonia government, whose push for independence has created political turmoil in recent years, said military help was “totally unnecessary”.

Now, senior health official Alba Verges said it would be welcome, adding that Catalonia’s intensive care capacity was “at the limit”. Catalonia has also asked to speed up the process for Spain to allow Cuban and Chinese doctors to join the effort.

Separately, Health Minister Illa said Seat, the local unit of German automaker Volkswagen, whose car production lines have been shut for more than two weeks, will produce 300 ventilators for emergency rooms per day. A local company, Hersill, will make another 100 ventilators a day, he said.

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Portugal suspends rents, worries surface over post-pandemic housing crisis

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s parliament approved on Thursday the suspension of rents for vulnerable households and cash-strapped small firms during the coronavirus outbreak, but rights groups warned that the measure might only delay a looming housing crisis.

The measure suspends rents until a month after the state of emergency ends. After that, renters are expected to repay what they owe in monthly installments for up to a year.

Those eligible include people whose household income fell 20% or more from the previous month or the same period last year, or who put at least 35% of their income toward rent.

The state of emergency was declared on March 18 and extended on Thursday by 15 days. It was not clear how much longer it will last, but Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Wednesday restrictive measures could be in place for months as the country approaches an expected plateau of coronavirus cases at the end of May.

Activists deemed the measure “insufficient”. Though rental prices may fall after the outbreak as demand for holiday lets dissipates, housing groups argue incomes are unlikely to recover fast enough for people to repay the debt.

“The loss of income because of the pandemic is hitting families already in very bad shape,” Stop Despejos and Habita, two of the biggest housing groups in the country, said in a joint statement.

“When the state of emergency ends people will face an economic crisis,” they said. “How will those who are unemployed start to pay rent again?”

Rents have skyrocketed in Portugal in recent years due to the rise of holiday apartments and controversial schemes such as the “golden visa” – granting residence to non-EU property buyers – while salaries remained almost unchanged.

A quarter of the population is on the lowest minimum wage in Western Europe of just 635 euros a month, with household savings at approximately 4.9%, according to Eurostat – one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Last week the government and central bank predicted a recession and a rise in unemployment in 2020 as the pandemic causes a slump in private consumption, investment and exports.

A group of lawyers providing free legal advice to people affected by the crisis fears a wave of evictions once the government lifts the rent suspension and landlords start demanding reimbursements.

“This pandemic crisis puts people’s right to work and housing at risk. We expect a housing crisis,” said Vasco Barata, from the Plataforma Solidaria group. “That’s what worries us.”

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France's coronavirus death toll jumps to nearly 5,400 as nursing homes included

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of cumulative known deaths from coronavirus in France surged to nearly 5,400 on Thursday as the country started including fatalities in nursing homes in its data.

Jerome Salomon, head of the public health authority, said the number of coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals rose 12% on Thursday to 4,503 from a day earlier.

He added that a provisional tally showed that a cumulative 884 people in total had died in nursing homes. This makes for a total of 5,387 lives lost to coronavirus in France.

Salomon said the number of known infections rose to 59,105 from 56,989 in France. The number of patients requiring life support rose to 6,399 from 6,017 on Wednesday.

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Canada faces 'critical week' in coronavirus crisis, death toll jumps

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada faces “a critical week” in fighting the coronavirus, a senior official said on Thursday, as the death toll jumped and the most populous province said residents should brace for a stark scenario.

Canada’s public health agency reported deaths had surged 21% to 127 from 105 on Wednesday while positive cases rose to 10,132 from 9,017.

“This is a critical week in our fight against the coronavirus,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told a daily briefing.

The health agency is particularly worried by the spread of the coronavirus in seniors’ residences, which are turning into hotspots in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia – the three biggest provinces by population.

The agency also predicted a surge in Ontario, which accounts for more than a third of Canada’s 38 million citizens.

Ontario premier Doug Ford said he would release sobering internal projections on Friday.

“It’s going to be hard for some people to hear but … I have to be up front with people, and I’m going to be, and people will see some really stark figures tomorrow,” he said.

Click in a separate browser for GRAPHIC tracking the global spread of coronavirus.

Authorities in Canada’s largest city Toronto complained that people are defying a shutdown order.

“We don’t want to see the beaches and the parks packed,” Ford told a briefing in Toronto.

In Quebec, premier Francois Legault urged police “to be less tolerant” when dealing with those ignoring orders to stay at home. People flouting the rules face fines from C$1,000 to C$6,000, he told reporters.

Legault, who has repeatedly expressed concern about shortages of crucial medical supplies, said the province had enough ventilators for another week.

Some medical personnel have raised concerns about a lack of personal protection equipment such as masks.

Trudeau said authorities had received over a million masks late on Wednesday.

“This is in addition to the 10 million masks that have come in over the last days and are being distributed … as quickly as possible,” he told a daily briefing.

Trudeau sidestepped requests to outline the projections Ottawa was using.

“I think people can imagine a range of scenarios that shows everything from everyone gets suddenly better within the next few weeks to this situation just keeps getting worse,” he said.

“Just highlighting that range is not as useful or important as being able to get … clearer analysis of what we are likely to face.”

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U.S. paying Russia for entire planeload of coronavirus equipment sent by Moscow: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is paying Russia for a planeload of medical equipment sent by Moscow to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, a senior Trump administration official said on Thursday, clearing up confusion as to who footed the bill.

It had been unclear whether Russia had sent the 60 tons of equipment as a gift or whether it had sold the shipment of ventilators, masks, respirators and other items.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow had paid half the cost with the other half picked up by Washington.

But the senior official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the United States paid.

“The United States is purchasing the supplies and equipment outright, as with deliveries from other countries,” the official said. “We appreciate Russia selling these items to us below market value.”

The official did not give an exact cost. The State Department did not respond to requests for further clarification on who paid for the supplies.

The plane arrived on Wednesday at John F. Kennedy airport in New York and the gear was to be inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make sure it met U.S. quality standards.

The shipment has drawn fire from critics of the Kremlin who said Russia was experiencing severe shortages of such items. Nations around the world are scrambling to get medical equipment to use against the pandemic.

The gear was sent shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the issue in a phone call.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday.

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Coronavirus: Premier Doug Ford says Ontario will release COVID-19 projection numbers on Friday

Premier Doug Ford says he has instructed Ontario health officials to release their projection numbers on where the province is headed amid the coronavirus pandemic on Friday.

Ford made the announcement alongside Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo at Queen’s Park Thursday afternoon.

“They’re going to tell the public exactly what they’re telling me and it’s going to be very clear where we were, where we are now and where we could be if we don’t follow the chief medical officer’s protocol,” Ford said.

The Premier said they are releasing the numbers on Friday rather than earlier because they now have a “better sense” of numbers now that people have returned from travelling, among other things.

“We have to be fully transparent with the people of Ontario, no matter how hard it will be,” he said, adding he hopes the people that “packed” the beaches and parks last weekend won’t be doing so again once they hear the projections.

“That will be a real wake up call to folks.”

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Ford said Ontario is the first government who will be releasing such numbers. The Premier said he is doing this because he wants to be as honest and upfront with Ontarians as much as possible.

The Premier said he couldn’t “comprehend” why people weren’t listening to social distancing protocol.

“They make think ‘it’s not going to happen to me.’ Well, it can happen to anyone, anyone in the world,” Ford said. “Not only doing that is unsafe — you can say selfish — because God forbid they get COVID-19 and all of a sudden they’re touching items that people go by and touch and then it spreads rapidly.”

“It’s disappointing to say the least.”

When asked if he was “breaking rank” due to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refusing to release such numbers to the country, Ford said he is not.

“In no way would I break rank with any other Premiers or the Prime Minister,” he said, adding he’s responsible for the people of Ontario.

As of Thursday afternoon, Ontario has 2,973 cases of coronavirus cases and 53 deaths.

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B.C. health officials to provide Thursday update on coronavirus response

British Columbia health officials are slated to provide their daily update on the province’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic at 3 p.m. PT Thursday.

Global News will stream the event live here and on our Facebook page and carry it on BC1.

On Thursday, Canada reached 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

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As of Thursday morning, B.C. had confirmed 1,066 cases and 25 deaths. The province says 606 people have fully recovered.

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Coronavirus stimulus aid for “small business” will go to some big chains – The Denver Post

IOWA CITY, Iowa — As the federal government prepares to launch a $349 billion loan program meant to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic, critics have growing concerns that some mom-and-pop shops might get squeezed out.

The Paycheck Protection Program — part of the $2 trillion relief package signed into law last week — was billed as a way to help local businesses that often form the fabric of communities retain workers and pay bills. But an expansive definition of “small business” in the law means that it will be open to much more than just Main Street shops when lenders start processing applications Friday.

Operators of name-brand hotel, restaurant and service chains and franchises with thousands of employees at locations scattered across the U.S. are eligible. Lobbyists are pushing the Small Business Administration to interpret the law generously to help sectors devastated by mandatory business closures and stay-at-home orders, possibly making the aid available to international fast food and lodging giants and allowing individual owners to get around a $10 million cap on loans.

While Congress could approve more money later on, the program as it stands is expected to run out quickly. That could mean applicants who have the financial and legal expertise of a larger organization might be able to maximize their benefits, not leaving much for smaller businesses, especially those who wait or have problems applying.

“I’m certain that’s what’s going to happen,” said Lauren Friel, the owner of a wine bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, that has been closed for three weeks. “It makes me really angry. It’s outrageous. They are going to walk away with their pockets full of cash.”

Friel said she intends to apply Friday for around $50,000 to help her pay rent and employees who have been furloughed, but she’s not expecting to be successful.

Independent contractors and the self-employed could be especially hurt since they will not be eligible to apply until April 10 under guidance from the Treasury Department. By then, banks could be overwhelmed with applications.

“It’s hard for me to say this: There is only $350 billion in this fund. Every big restaurant and hotel chain is going to be going after this money. It’s not going to last,” said Ron Feldman, chief development officer at ApplePie Capital, which has been helping businesses get ready to apply.

“If you want to get this loan, speed is your friend,” Feldman told 2,000 franchise industry officials on a conference call this week.

Underscoring the need for help, the federal government reported Thursday that a record 10 million workers filed for unemployment in the two weeks ending March 28.

Jeff Brabant, manager of government relations for the National Federation of Independent Business, said he was still optimistic that the loan program would deliver for traditional small businesses.

“Our tone could change in a week if things don’t go well,” he said.

The program will give businesses low-interest loans of about 2.5 times their average monthly payroll. They will be fully or partially forgiven if businesses show that the money was used to retain or rehire employees and pay some overhead expenses through June 30.

The law specified that all food service and lodging businesses qualify as long as they do not have more than 500 employees at a single location. It also declared that thousands of franchises recognized by the SBA — like multilocation restaurants, hotels, gyms and hair salons — will qualify regardless of their revenue and ties to large corporate parents. Many nonprofits, which are normally ineligible for such aid, also qualify.

The law says the maximum loan will be $10 million. But lobbyists representing chains are asking that the cap apply to each location — rather than each owner.

The International Franchise Association argued in a letter to SBA that would allow the program “to achieve its intended outcome and have maximum impact.” The letter urged the agency to confirm that franchisors it recognizes — that are the parent companies of major chains from Burger King to Marriott — qualify as well.

The agency is expected to issue additional guidance on the program Thursday.

Greg Flynn, CEO of the Flynn Restaurant Group, which calls itself the largest restaurant franchisee in the U.S. and owns more than 1,200 Applebee’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell and Panera locations, said larger employers should get relief, too, so that they can quickly rehire workers.

Flynn said that he made the heartbreaking decision to furlough 30,000 of his 48,000 employees as his company’s revenue dropped by 60% in a matter of days. He is hoping to qualify for 2 1/2 times his $60 million monthly payroll under the program.

“It is my 100% total focus just to survive and keep the infrastructure in place, so there is a home for our employees to come back to,” Flynn said. “With (the rescue), we can do it. Without it, I don’t think we can.”

Darryl DePriest, who was chief counsel for the SBA office that advocates for small business from 2015 to 2017, called the $349 billion “almost like a first installment” and predicted Congress will eventually appropriate more money.

But for now, business owners who wait or have problems filing their applications might lose out to larger applicants, said Veronique de Rugy, a research fellow at George Mason University.

“When we look at back who were the beneficiaries of this, we’re probably going to see that it’s skewed toward the bigger of the so-called small businesses,” she said.

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