The latest coronavirus news: Another 400 soldiers to assist at Quebec nursing homes; P.E.I. to remain closed to non-residents

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Latest headlines: Manitoba to ease some COVID-19 restrictions starting Monday More than half of Canadian businesses say revenue cut by at least 20% as pandemic took hold: survey The House is back to debate legislation for student aid Ontario reports latest coronavirus figures

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2:20 p.m. ET P.E.I. to remain closed to non-residents as COVID-19 restrictions eased

Prince Edward Island will remain closed to non-residents for the foreseeable future as part of its newly released plans to begin easing COVID-19 restrictions.

That is aimed at protecting residents, but it also blocks one of the Island’s biggest industries.

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King has announced a four-phase plan that will see the province begin lifting some pandemic restrictions, starting with limited allowances and building up to restaurants and other businesses reopening in mid-June.

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King says he believes the fact that P.E.I. is an island province with only three entry points has helped to keep the virus contained to only 27 positive cases, no deaths and no community spread of the disease to date.

But keeping the province’s boundaries closed to protect Islanders’ health means keeping out the 1.5 million tourists that visit every year — a measure that King says will have major impacts on many businesses and workers and the provincial economy as a whole.

P.E.I. is among several provinces that have announced reopening plans over the last few days even as the pandemic continues to spread within Canada.

Canadian Press

1:45 p.m. ET Third B.C. poultry processing plant reports confirmed case of COVID-19

A third poultry processor in British Columbia is reporting a worker has tested positive for COVID-19.

Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry in Chilliwack says in a social media post that an employee tested positive Tuesday but had been in isolation at home since last Friday after developing mild systems.

The company says it is working with health officials and government inspectors to ensure all recommended protocols, precautions and procedures are implemented.

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Two other poultry operations in Metro Vancouver were ordered closed by health officials this month when workers at the plants tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, 80 COVID-19 cases had been linked to the two poultry facilities, with 46 at Superior Poultry Processors Ltd. in Coquitlam and 34 at United Poultry Co. Ltd. in Vancouver.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has said there is no indication food is a source of transmission of the virus.

Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry, which produces organic and specialty chicken, duck, squab and free-run geese, says similar businesses have not been required to recall products after COVID-19 outbreaks.

The statement says its office and farm store remains open.

“However, our plant will be closed Wednesday, April 29 as we meet with officials to plan our next steps.”

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The province has reported 2,053 cases of the new coronavirus, with 1,231 cases successfully recovered, but B.C. had also recorded 105 deaths.

Canadian Press

1:40 p.m. ET Another 400 soldiers to assist at Quebec nursing homes

Quebec is receiving another 400 soldiers to lend a hand in the province’s overburdened long-term care homes.

Deputy Premier Genevieve Guilbault says the soldiers are in addition to those already working in the province since April 20.

More than 60 per cent of the province’s deaths have occurred in care homes, where absences and illnesses due to COVID-19 have worsened pre-existing understaffing issues.

Guilbault says that while many new people have been hired, she’s encouraging anyone who wants to work in the homes to apply.

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Canadian Press

11:45 a.m. ET Nova Scotia reports 20 new cases, one new death

Nova Scotia is reporting one new death related to COVID-19, bringing the total to 28.

The death occurred at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax.

The province has also identified 20 new cases of the virus today, bringing the number of confirmed cases to 935.Nova Scotia has registered 27,486 negative test results, with 11 people currently in hospital, and three of those patients in intensive care.

Health officials say 529 people have now recovered and their cases of COVID-19 are considered resolved.

Canadian Press

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11:30 a.m. ET Farm groups oppose new foreign worker restrictions in New Brunswick

Farm groups in New Brunswick say a ban on new temporary foreign workers couldn’t have come at a worse time, and will have a major impact on food production in the province.

Premier Blaine Higgs imposed the restriction on Tuesday, saying provincial borders need to remain closed with so many serious outbreaks of COVID-19 in surrounding jurisdictions.

He said the move does not affect the status of about 1,500 temporary foreign workers currently in the province.

A number of farm groups are demanding the decision be reversed so they can keep promises to workers that have been assured employment.

Rebeka Frazer Chiasson, president of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick says the skilled labour is not easily replaced and many farmers will reduce their risk by limiting the amount they plant.

Agriculture Minister Ross Wetmore says the jobs can be filled by students or people who are temporarily unemployed, but Frazer Chiasson says those people could be called back to their regular jobs at any time.

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Canadian Press

11:20 a.m. ET Ottawa offers up to $5,000 for students who volunteer for work related to pandemic

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government plans to provide between $1,000 and $5,000 for students who volunteer to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trudeau did not say when the new Canada Student Services Grant will be rolled out, but says specific supports will also be set up for Indigenous students.

The prime minister says the federal government is also planning to extend research grants, fellowships and other support to graduate students and researchers.

The new measures are on top of $9 billion in support for students unveiled last week.

Canadian Press

10:49 a.m. ET Ontario reports latest in new cases

Ontario is reporting 347 new COVID-19 cases today, and 45 more deaths. That brings the province to a total of 15,728 cases — a 2.3 per cent increase over the previous day, which is the lowest growth rate in weeks. More than 60 per cent of the total cases — 9,612 — are ones that have been resolved, and there have been a total of 996 deaths. In long-term care, there was an increase of 70 deaths to 775, though the numbers come from a separate database from the provincial totals. –Canadian Press

9:30 a.m. ET More than half of Canadian businesses saw revenue cut by at least 20% as pandemic took hold: survey

More than half of Canadian companies saw their revenue drop by more than 20 per cent during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, while nearly three-quarters of businesses report being negatively affected by social distancing measures aimed at curbing the virus’s growth.

Nearly one-third of businesses said sales dropped more than 40 per cent in the first quarter when compared to a year earlier, according to survey results published Wednesday by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. About one-fifth of businesses said their revenue had declined between 20 per cent and 40 per cent during the period.

More than 12,600 businesses took part in the online survey between April 3 and 24. Statscan said that because the data were crowd-sourced, the results could not be applied to the overall economy. –Read full story by Matt Lundy

4:08 a.m. ET Ontario Energy Association calls for end to most hydro subsidies

The association representing Ontario’s energy producers and distributors says the province should stop subsidizing the price of hydro and instead offer targeted help to customers who need it most.

The Ontario Energy Association makes the request of the Ontario government in a policy paper released Wednesday, saying most of the nearly $6 billion the province spends every year to cut electricity costs goes to customers who don’t need help paying their bills.

If the province continues with its current pace, it will spend $228 billion subsidizing hydro rates over the next 25 years, according to the association.

“Ontario is also now spending more on electricity subsidies than on its entire transportation system,” the report states.

The paper, which was developed in partnership with former federal spending watchdog Kevin Page, makes a series of recommendations, including phasing out subsidies to help improve price stability.

The hydro file has been a problem for successive governments, with former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals introducing their Fair Hydro Plan in 2017 to address a public outcry over soaring hydro rates, particularly in rural areas.

The policy lowered time-of-use rates by 25 per cent by removing from bills a portion of the global adjustment — a charge consumers paid for above-market rates to power producers.

Over the next decade, a new entity overseen by Ontario Power Generation was to pay that difference and take on debt to do so.

The energy association says looking back now, the impact experienced by some customers “cascaded into a broader reaction by voters that was vastly disproportionate” to the actual impact.

The association’s report says that despite years of relatively high increases, residential rates in Ontario remain among the lowest in North America.

Vince Brescia, the association’s president, said the group decided to publish the paper now because it believes the anger that surrounded electricity costs in 2017 has dissipated.

But he acknowledged that removing subsidies, thereby increasing costs for some customers, will not be a popular message.

“It may fall on deaf ears. It’s not a message a lot of people want to hear,” he said in an interview. “But most of people aren’t aware that we’re borrowing money to subsidize electricity, and when they find out that we’re doing that they really don’t like it. They think it’s a bad idea.”

The province will need the money it’s been spending on subsidies for other things coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brescia added.

“We need them for other societal issues,” he said. “The point is, we don’t see them going to good use and we think somebody needs to say this.”

The report does recommend the government keep some subsidies in place for rural and low-income residents, while also continuing to remove the provincial portion of the sales tax from bills.

In March, Premier Doug Ford reaffirmed a key campaign promise he made during the 2018 election to slash costs by 12 per cent.

“We’re trying to hold the line,” he said at the time. “We are going to keep our promise (and) reduce it by 12 per cent. It’s a very, very complicated, complicated issue.”

Brescia said Ford should also reconsider making good on his promise to cut rates by heaping on any further subsidies.

“Who really cares about that commitment now … we’re in a post-pandemic world,” he said. “We need to really think about what our priorities are.”

During the pandemic, Ford’s government has cut hydro rates for residential consumers, farms and small businesses in response to a surge in people working from home — spending $162 million to subsidize the 45-day switch to off-peak rates.

In January, Ontario’s finance minister announced the province would spend $1.6 billion more than it had budgeted to “stabilize” hydro rates for customers in 2019-2020.

Rod Phillips blamed the previous Liberal government’s Fair Hydro Plan and green energy deals for creating an environment that has led to an increase in hydro rates.

“There’s no question that $1.6 billion of additional spending is troubling,” he said at the time. “This is the legacy of a failed Liberal energy strategy that provided energy people didn’t need at prices they couldn’t afford.” -Canadian Press

4:02 a.m. ET Funeral homes bracing for wave of services

Scott MacCoubrey looked at his growing list of postponed memorial services and realized he might have a problem.

He and his staff at MacCoubrey Funeral Homes in Cobourg and Colborne, Ont., have started generating ideas for how to address the backlog of memorial services created by government restrictions on public gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re still sort of brainstorming, but one of the things that we’re planning on doing is having more night funerals,” said MacCoubrey, noting that would allow his funeral home to host an additional service every day. “Prior to the pandemic, we’d have maybe two night funerals a year.”

Small funerals are still permitted under Ontario’s current emergency orders, with an officiant plus nine other people allowed to attend. Expanding the number of people allowed to attend funerals was in Stage 1 of Premier Doug Ford’s plan to reopen the province that was unveiled on Monday, but the timeline and details of that plan are not yet clear.

Of course, death doesn’t wait for government orders.

According to Statistics Canada, Ontario averaged more than 8,300 deaths every April between 2014 and 2018, and a surge is expected this year because of the novel coronavirus.

Although some families have opted for the small-scale funerals currently permitted, most have not. A representative from the Ontario Funeral Services Association suggested there could be as many as 5,000 memorial services waiting to be held from the past six weeks alone.

“For the most part, families are understanding the situation and have followed the rules,” said Scott Smith, owner of Smith Funeral Home in Sarnia, Ont. “It is so hard to see families having to grieve separately and from a distance.”

Smith says he’s done what he can to help grieving families, including hiring a videographer to ensure families have a quality recording of their private service or livestreaming the event when families have requested it.

Michael Sargent of Sargent and Sons Funeral Home in Thunder Bay, Ont., hopes the government will lift the restrictions gradually so that smaller gatherings of 20 or 30 could be held, easing the burden on his industry.

“They may have families that are comfortable with 30 people there so (a limit of 50) is going to more than cover what we need, so they may be willing to proceed at that point,” said Sargent.

“I have others that are a big family with a lot of community involvement and they’re expecting 300 people, so they may not be quite comfortable yet with just a crowd of 50.”

Hosting two or three services in a day would also likely mean having to disinfect chapels and reception spaces after each event.

The mounting number of postponed memorials is not the only logistical problem facing the funerary industry.

Burials and cremations have continued on at the request of the government, with some crematoriums having to extend their hours to keep pace.

Picking up the remains of the recently deceased has also become more complicated, with funeral home staff unable to enter hospitals or long-term care facilities. Instead, funeral homes bring a gurney and body bag to the door of the facility and pass it off to someone just outside of the building, who is then responsible for bringing the remains back out.

Most pressing is a lack of personal protection equipment, which is necessary to protect funeral home workers when handling remains. Because funeral homes are not considered an essential service, they don’t have the same access to masks and gloves as front-line health workers.

Instead, the Ontario Funeral Service Association and individual homes have organized trades or sales, moving surplus stock around the province as needed.

“It’s been very interesting because even though we’re private enterprise, and we compete with each other, during this pandemic, everybody’s working together to help each other,” said MacCoubrey.

“It’s been amazing, really.” -Canadian Press

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