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COVID-19: Ontario’s science advisers call for a change in direction; province reports 3,469 new cases, 186 in Ottawa

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Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table are recommending further measures to help the province emerge from the third wave of the pandemic.

Much of what the science table is calling for would represent a change in direction for Premier Doug Ford’s government, whose measures have been subject to broad criticism. The table is comprised of a group of science and health experts who provide information the government can use to craft its pandemic response.

What will allow the province to reopen safely, according to the science table, includes:

  • Allowing only “truly essential” indoor workplaces to stay open, and strict enforcement of protective measures in those places.
  • An emergency pandemic benefit that offers more money than the current federal sick-leave program, which the science table described as “cumbersome,” and is immediately paid and easy to access.
  • Immediate allocation of as many vaccine doses as possible to hot-spot neighbourhoods, vulnerable populations and essential workers.
  • Restricting movement into the province and between regions.
  • “Focusing on public health guidance that works.” Namely, preventing Ontarians from gathering indoors with people they don’t live with, “with the very limited exception of safe indoor work in essential workplaces.”
  • Allowing small groups of people who don’t live together to socialize outdoors, with masks and two metres of distance.
  • Keeping playgrounds open, and “clearly encouraging safe outdoor activities.”

The science table said that policies that “harm or neglect” the racialized, marginalized and vulnerable populations that the disease disproportionately impacts, are unhelpful. Measures that discourage “safe outdoor activity,” which will also harm children and those without access to their own green space, are also unproductive.

Finally, the table notes that, “Inconsistent policies with no clear link to scientific evidence are ineffective in fighting COVID-19.”

Ontario’s latest pandemic measures, announced by Ford last Friday, saw outdoor amenities shuttered (playgrounds have since been allowed to reopen), stay-at-home policing authority expanded (since partially walked back), interprovincial border checkpoints erected, and outdoor gatherings banned. The government announced further business closures, but only in the construction sector, and reduced capacity limits in big-box stores.

Indoor weddings, funerals, and religious services were allowed to continue, with masking and distancing required, and capacity limited to 10 people.

The province-wide stay-at-home order was extended to a total of six weeks, and the government announced it would dedicate 25 per cent of future vaccine shipments to the 13 hardest-hit public health unit regions.

While there has been no movement on paid pandemic sick leave provincially, despite many calls for it, Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday the province is examining what it can do to address “gaps” in the federal sick-pay program.

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LIFESTYLES

As shopping habits change, Ottawa targets credit card swipe fees

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The federal government is taking aim at credit-card transaction fees as shifting shopping habits resulting from pandemic lockdowns have substantially driven up costs for many small merchants.

The budget released this week promises the government will launch consultations aimed at lowering the average charges — known as interchange fees — paid by merchants every time a customer pays with a credit card.

Though federal officials plan to engage with stakeholders, including credit-card issuers and merchants, about possible changes, Monday’s budget also raises the threat of legislation to regulate fees “if necessary.”

This is the third time in less than seven years that the federal government has pressured credit-card companies to lower transaction fees, which vary between retailers, types of cards and payment methods. In 2014, there was an agreement reached with Visa Canada and Mastercard Canada to lower average fees to 1.5 per cent. Then in 2018 a five-year pact was struck that included voluntary commitments to lower average fees to 1.4 per cent, starting in 2020. (American Express struck a separate deal with Ottawa.)

But COVID-19 has rapidly altered consumers’ spending patterns, creating pressure to revisit that deal. Many of the interchange fees that were reduced applied solely to payments made in stores. As public-health restrictions have forced stores to limit access or close, fewer customers are swiping, tapping, or paying in cash. As a result, businesses are bearing the brunt of higher transaction fees charged for online purchases – unless they pass those costs on to customers by raising prices.

“The pandemic has been a huge driver of credit-card interchange [fees] as people have dropped cash and have moved online,” Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, said in an interview. “It is a rapidly growing cost and was a rapidly growing cost even prior to the pandemic.”

The interchange fees paid by Christina Kotiadis, co-owner of Toronto gift store Lemon & Lavender, have gone way up during the pandemic. She built an online store for the first time to process e-commerce orders, and more customers who visit the store are tapping cards to make contactless payments. She also bought a mobile terminal to take payments anywhere in the store, or at the front door, which charges higher fees than the store’s plug-in terminal. For health reasons, she allows customers to pay with cards even for small purchases and absorbs the added costs.

“I refuse to raise prices. I don’t feel good about it. Everyone is trying to stay safe, and I don’t want to raise the fee because they don’t want to use cash,” she said.

Before the pandemic, about 60 per cent of payments at independent grocery stores were made with credit cards, and the rest with cash or debit cards, according to Gary Sands, a senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. Now, more than 90 per cent of purchases are with credit cards as online ordering and curbside pickups become more popular, and the resulting interchange fees are adding up.

“It impacts prices, it impacts the ability of small businesses to stay in business,” he said.

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Ottawa considers taking action against ‘predatory lenders’

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Ottawa will consider lowering the maximum interest rate to stop the “predatory lending” of outfits that make high-interest loans, which anti-poverty advocates say have exploited Canadians during the pandemic.

In Monday’s budget, the federal government announced plans to launch consultations on lowering the “criminal rate of interest,” the maximum annualized interest rate for credit allowed under the federal Criminal Code.

For instalment loans — longer-term credit with high interest — lenders can charge up to 60 per cent annual interest under the usury rules.

Payday loans — high-interest loans that are typically due two weeks later — are exempt from federal rules under a 2007 amendment, if provinces have their own regulations for payday lenders, which all now do. 

Many low- or moderate-income Canadians rely on high-interest, short-term loans to make ends meet or for unanticipated emergencies, leaving them stuck in a cycle of debt, the budget states. 

Anti-poverty advocates have zeroed in on companies like Money Mart, Easy Financial, and Cash Money, accusing them of misleading advertising, not being forthright about the strings attached, and pushing borrowers to take out larger loans at the highest interest rates possible. 

They say the practices are continuing during COVID, when more Canadians than ever are facing financial hardship.

“They’re thriving, because they’re taking advantage of people,” said Donna Bordon, a member of the anti-poverty group, ACORN Canada. “People are afraid of losing their homes, so they borrow money from these places.”

The consultations are a “first step” in tackling predatory lending, Bordon said, adding she hopes they include more than industry representatives, who will sharply oppose any changes.

Despite low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, poorer borrowers are more likely to lack the requirements to access safer loans from traditional banks. Instead, they seek quick cash from payday lenders, despite the risk of falling into debt they can’t escape.

In Ontario, for example, payday lenders can charge $15 in interest for every $100 over a two-week period — equal to an annualized interest rate of 391 per cent. 

Last July, the Ontario government capped the interest rate that lenders can charge on defaulted payday loans at 2.5 per cent per month. It also set a maximum fee of $25 that lenders can charge for dishonoured or bounced cheques, or pre-authorized debits.

In 2019, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada found that two per cent of Canadians had taken out payday loans in the previous year. The percentage was even higher for Indigenous people, and low-income and single-parent households.

Last month, NDP finance critic Peter Julian tabled a private member’s bill to lower the maximum interest rate to 30 per cent, and to remove the exception for provinces that regulate payday lenders — measures ACORN supports.

The Canadian Consumer Finance Association, which represents payday lenders, said in a statement that while it’s still reviewing Monday’s budget, it’s opposed to lowering the interest-rate limit.

“Instalment loans are long-, not short-term loans, and they provide an important source of credit for many Canadians who cannot access credit elsewhere,” the organization said.

“Any reduction to the federal maximum interest rate will result in removal of access to credit for those Canadians with lower credit scores who previously qualified at the current rates. The government should not take any action that results in denial of credit to Canadians, or forces borrowers to access credit from illegal, unlicensed lenders.”

A survey of 376 ACORN members published by the group last February found 40 per cent of respondents were turned down by a traditional bank before taking out a high-interest loan. Seventeen per cent said they’re now unable to make repayments due to COVID-19.

The federal government should seek ways to provide alternative lines of credit to low-income Canadians, such as mandating banks to offer lower-interest loans, Bordon said.

Besides setting up a complaints process for consumer lending that’s stronger than the provinces’ systems, it should also consider postal banking for rural areas and small towns, she added.

The ACORN survey found that 70 per cent of its survey respondents had once turned to payday loans. Forty-five per cent had taken out instalment loans, an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when only 11 per cent said they’d taken out such loans. 

ACORN represents low- to moderate-income Canadians. Sixty per cent of its survey respondents earn less than $30,000 a year.

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LIFESTYLES

Federal budget 2021: Ottawa ties end of financial supports to completion of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

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The federal government will extend its business and income support programs until the country’s vaccination campaign is complete, but their subsidy levels will start to drop before the deadline for all Canadians to get their shots.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget, tabled Monday, sets Sept. 25 as the end date for the direct business and personal income supports the government introduced in response to the pandemic. That is in line with the end-of-summer deadline Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set for the completion of Canada’s vaccine rollout. It’s widely expected Canadians could also be sent back to the polls around that time.

The government proposes spending $15.1-billion more to extend the emergency support programs until September and create a new subsidy, which Ms. Freeland called a “lifeline” for Canadians and businesses in her speech to the House of Commons.

The budget also, for the first time, pegged the cost of Canada’s vaccine contracts at more than $9-billion; however, officials were not able to provide any details on that number, including how much has been already spent or allocated.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it was encouraged by the extension of the business supports during the pandemic and cautioned against their hasty withdrawal. “The government must ensure that support is not being removed too early and that the level of support does not decrease too quickly,” president Perrin Beatty said in a statement.

On Monday, neither Ms. Freeland nor federal officials were able to explain why the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, Lockdown Support and the Canada Recovery Benefit will all decrease before the vaccination program is expected to be complete. The government also did not say whether the decrease is based on metrics such as COVID-19 case counts or vaccination rates.

“No one knows for sure what the course of the virus and new variants will be, and that is why we are prepared to act further and to further extend the supports should the course of the virus require that,” Ms. Freeland said at a news conference.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit are also set to end in September. If the pandemic gets worse, the government will introduce legislation that will allow it to extend those programs until Nov. 20.

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