TORONTO — Amid still rising case counts and further signs of the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that businesses can take advantage of emergency wage subsidies until the end of August.
One indication of the impact of the measures aimed at fighting the novel coronavirus was seen in the 57.6 per cent plunge in Canadian home sales in April compared with a year ago, to levels not seen in almost 40 years.
Another sign came from Ontario's fiscal watchdog, which reported about one in three workers in the province had been affected by the economic shutdown. The Financial Accountability Office released a report saying about 1.1 million workers had lost their jobs — just as many had their hours sharply reduced — because of the pandemic.
In extending the wage-subsidy program, due to have ended next month, the prime minister pleaded with business owners to hire new workers or rehire old ones to help get the sputtering economy moving again.
"Please take confidence from this announcement," Trudeau said in Ottawa. "You now have some runway to catch your breath as you get restarted. So please, bring back your employees."
Overall, Canada has seen more than 74,500 confirmed COVID cases and at least 5,550 deaths due to coronavirus disease. Quebec, the province hardest hit, reported its total caseload had climbed reasonably slowly to 41,420, an increase of 696. However, 50 more people died, pushing the provincial total to 3,401.
The Quebec government also said it would allow Ottawa-area residents to enter the province from Ontario, starting Monday.
Ontario reported 27 more coronavirus deaths on Friday, bringing its total to 1,825 amid another modest 1.6 per cent increase in overall cases. Nova Scotia said another four people had succumbed in the hard-hit Northwood nursing home in Halifax. The province has had 55 deaths and more than 1,000 cases.
Federal prisons also saw 13 more reported infections, with Correctional Service Canada saying 356 inmates had now tested positive, two fatally. Almost all infected prisoners were at the Federal Training Centre in Laval, Que., the Mission Medium Institution in N.C., or Joliette Institution, also in Quebec. At least 88 guards have had COVID.
With the long weekend and summer approaching, Montreal said it would transform 200 kilometres of city streets into bicycle and pedestrian corridors. The aim is to allow residents to get out and about amid public health rules. Mayor Valerie Plante said the fight against the epidemic had transformed travel in Montreal.
"It will be a very different summer for all of us," said Plante, whose city has been the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada.
Toronto, which cancelled all city-run summer camps and recreation events on Friday, has also begun creating more pedestrian space to allow for physical distancing.
While several provinces reported no new cases, one of them, Newfoundland and Labrador, became the latest to say its schools will stay closed this academic year. Education Minister Brian Warr encouraged students to continue studying online, and said the province was developing plans for when schools reopen in September.
In British Columbia, parents were being given the choice of allowing their children to return to class part-time in June, while Yukon Premier Sandy Silver was set to announce a comprehensive reopening plan. For now, only residents and a few others are allowed to enter the territory.
Trudeau urged provinces to boost and co-ordinate testing for coronavirus and contact tracing for those infected to contain future outbreaks.
The prime minister also announced financial support for thousands of non-COVID medical researchers who face layoffs. The 15,000 researchers at hospital-based institutes didn't qualify for the wage subsidy.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called again for Parliament to reconvene, saying the current approach of limited sittings and virtual meetings isn't good enough to hold the Liberal government accountable for the billions it's providing in emergency aid. Trudeau, however, said the current system was working well.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who encouraged social distancing over the long weekend, reassured people worried about grocery shortages that supply chains were strong. "The key is everyone only buys what they need," Ford said.
-With files from Canadian Press reporters across the country
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2020.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press