News

1. The latest

Premier Stephen McNeil sits before photos showing how Nova Scotians are making the best of staying at home. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia.

“The Nova Scotia government has extended the State of Emergency until April 19 to try and contain the spread of COVID-19,” reports Jennifer Henderson, who sat in on yesterday’s briefing for me:

Premier Stephen McNeil announced two new programs: one, to help workers and self-employed people who have lost their jobs and two, a program for small businesses forced to close during this pandemic.

The new emergency funding is $40 million. Half will go to a Worker Emergency Bridge Fund that will give a close-to-immediate one-time grant of $1,000 to workers who don’t qualify for EI; the money is intended to be a gap before the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response fund kicks in. The other half goes to a Small Business Impact Fund that provides a one-time grant to businesses equivalent to 15% of monthly sales. Details of both funds will be provided soon.

I’ve also updated the daily charts tracking the progress of the disease in Nova Scotia:

On a tiny positive note, 16 of the 193 people who we know have contracted COVID-19 in Nova Scotia have fully recovered. This means that the “active cases” number (total minus recovered) is becoming more meaningful, in terms of the impact of the disease on the health care system. I’ll think through how to best represent that graphically and start including some sort of matrix in the charts.

2. Temporary and exclusive COVID-19 hospitals

“The arrival of COVID-19 has increased the pressure on the Department of Health, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), and the Department of Community Services to empty out long-stay patients to make room for an expected surge of hospitalizations,” reported Jennifer Henderson yesterday.

Henderson detailed how the hospitals were clearing out the most difficult-to-house patients.

Relatedly, there is a lesson to be learned from Italy:

“The biggest mistake we made was to admit patients infected with COVID-19 into hospitals throughout the region,” said Carlo Borghetti, the vice-premier of Lombardy, an economically crucial region with a population of 10 million.

“We should have immediately set up separate structures exclusively for people sick with coronavirus. I recommend the rest of the world do this, to not send COVID patients into health-care facilities that are still uninfected.”

This morning, I have confirmation from Nova Scotia Health Authority spokesperson Brendan Elliott that the NSHA could potentially open temporary hospitals for COVID-19 patients. Via email, he writes:

Our priority at this time is to ensure we are maximizing our ability to house COVID-19 patients in our current inventory of hospitals.

[But] there is a recognition contingency plans need to be in place in case we need alternative options. Senior staff are investigating potential sites and are still refining details and exploring all possibilities to ensure we have the right services, in the right locations, at the right time.

Hospitals are built with a specific purpose and require unique physical infrastructure (i.e. gas, power, equipment) to support certain levels of care. Alternative locations may not have these capabilities, and may not be able to provide the appropriate level of care, especially with high acuity care such as critical care.

Six hospitals have dedicated COVID-19 units. Each unit would have approximately 30 beds. Each unit is sectioned off from other parts of the hospital.

If someone was to need more acute care, they would be transferred to the ICU in each hospital.

The hospitals in the province that have COVID-19 units are:

QEII-Halifax Infirmary site
*          Dartmouth General Hospital
*          Yarmouth Regional Hospital
*          Cape Breton Regional Hospital – Sydney
*          St. Martha’s Regional Hospital – Antigonish
*          Colchester East Hants Health Centre – Truro

The NSHA’s “roadmap” for pandemic planning can be found here.

3. Small businesses

“Small businesses are big business in Nova Scotia,” reports Erica Butler:

First, there’s plenty of them. According to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Business Counts, in December 2019 there were 31,524 businesses with between one and 99 employees in Nova Scotia.

Second, they employ a pretty big chunk of the population. Again, Stats Can tells us that in 2018, 69.8% of Canadian private sector employment was in small businesses. In Nova Scotia, the share was even higher, at 75.5%, or about 213,000 jobs.

Which is why it will be especially painful for all of us if the COVID-19 shutdown ends up decimating small shops and businesses.

Click here to read “Without a stronger government response, Main Street businesses will be decimated by the pandemic.”

4. City Hall

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Jennifer Henderson wrote this item.

The mayor and councillors of Halifax Regional Municipality held an online meeting yesterday for the first time since the public health emergency began.

HRM Council considered a motion to extend the deadline for residential and business property tax bills until June 1; that motion will go to a full-council vote on April 14, and will likely pass. However, CAO Jacques Dubé said it was “critical” for those who can manage to pay their taxes by the end of April to do so. The city’s top civil servant said HRM spends about $100 million a month to provide services.

The pandemic which has kept people from going out and in many cases kept people from working has reduced HRM revenue from fees, parking, and transit: bus fares alone brought in about $3 million a month in the days before the virus. HRM will continue to pay its bills for the next three months but the CAO indicated cash flow could become an issue.

The decline in revenue has forced HRM councillors to throw out the 2020-21 budget and ask staff to bring back a revised edition at the end of May. After thanking city workers and front-line staff for their commitment during the last few weeks, Mayor Mike Savage read the following statement:

The public health response to COVID-19 requires deep emotional and economic sacrifices. All of us around this virtual table have heard from fearful residents, people who are lonely, workers who have lost their jobs, and business owners who are close to folding or who have already closed.

I’m grateful we’ve been able to help some of the most vulnerable in our society by working with the Province and the departments of Community Services and Housing to turn municipal recreation facilities into emergency shelters. We’ve done our part to support the needed closure of parks, playgrounds and other recreational facilities and I ask for the continued indulgence of all citizens so we can maintain that.

As a municipality, we must find a way to keep money moving into our economy and soften the financial blow for businesses and residents. That could mean keeping capital projects and stimulus money, to be nimble with private sector permits, and to keep procurement moving.

We will help those who need help. The implications for our community are great and unfortunately, are still so unknown. Some days we have to look hard to find hope but it is there. In the capable crisis management of folks like Dr Strang; in  the professionalism of all the doctors and nurses and front-line healthcare providers as well as others who ensure we can access food and medications we need to continue to live. The rapidly increasing volume of testing and vaccine research is something we can be thankful for as well.

5. Moose River betrayal

Atlantic Gold’s booth at PDAC. Photo: Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter reports on Atlantic Gold’s continued operations during the COVID-19 crisis, then turns her attention to a seemingly forgotten requirement of the mining company:

[W]hen Atlantic Gold (or rather, its predecessor, DDV Gold) received its environmental approval from the Nova Scotia government on February 1, 2008 for the “surface gold mine at Moose River,” the approval came with Terms and Conditions.

These terms were laid out by then Minister of Environment and Labour, Mark Parent, in the Progressive Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald.

One of the conditions is that:

Within four years of the date of this Approval, the Proponent shall develop and implement a plan for procuring conservation land with valued protected areas attributes in the vicinity of the Undertaking for statutory protection by the province. The plan shall be developed in consultation with NSEL [Nova Scotia Environment and Labour], NSDNR [Department of Natural Resources], the Community Liaison Committee, and any other parties identified by NSEL. The plan must be approved by the Minister prior to implementation.”

Curious as to whether Atlantic Gold had fulfilled this condition of its environmental approval — issued twelve years ago — I emailed Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Rachel Boomer. I asked if the company had provided the government with a plan for procuring the conservation land as it was supposed to have done by 2012, and whether the land had been procured and handed over to the province for protection, as Environment and Labour Minister Parent mandated it to do back in 2008.

Turns out the answer is no.

Boomer replied:

The province has been in ongoing negotiations with Atlantic Gold with respect to these conditions for a number of years. We have reached a draft agreement and are working to finalize the details. Once all parties sign the agreement, the company will have four years to buy the land. We hope to have this agreement signed by all parties in the coming months.

Our goal is to have the company purchase 256 hectares’ worth of land for protection with high biodiversity value, similar to the land being protected by the project [I believe this should say “land being leased” from the province by the project – Atlantic Gold – and have written to Boomer for clarification].

Click here to read “Moose River betrayal.”

6. Donkin

Donkin mine. Photo: Morien Resources

Mary Campbell of the Cape Breton Spectator turns her attention to the closure of the Donkin mine:

Everything I know about PR firms I’ve learned from television, but my understanding is that they help you “craft” your message, “spin” the facts and “take control of the narrative” in unpleasant corporate moments. They could, for example, help you decide — in the middle of a global pandemic that is hitting the already-declining coal industry so hard Moody’s Investors Services is calling for bankruptcies and closures and the industry’s chief lobbying group in the US has asked the government for $800 million in relief — to blame the Donkin closure on the mine’s geology.

If you think about this for just a moment it will strike you that the geology of the mine is the constant in this equation — the geology of the mine has been studied extensively and the infrastructure needed to prevent roof falls (the ostensible cause of the closure) is well understood, as demonstrated in a recent letter to the Spectator from Steve Drake.

If the geology of the mine didn’t stop production after the first, or fifth, or eighth or twelfth roof fall, why would we believe the geology of the mine is to blame now?

No, the factor that’s changed, in my humble opinion, is the coronavirus pandemic. That relief package the industry requested from the US government? The one that included the suspension of an excise tax that funds benefits to miners with black lung disease, a condition that is on the rise again in the US and that could make miners who have it more susceptible to the coronavirus? It was turned down by the US government this past Friday.

As the Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal noted:

The coal industry, which has been in a free fall in Kentucky and nationally, was left out of a $2.2 trillion bill passed by lawmakers and signed by President Trump Friday that seeks to rescue the country from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic

Most of the coal produced in the US is used to generate electricity but demand for electricity has dropped so significantly due to the COVID-19 shutdown that experts say you could safely shut down 25% of the grid (the portion supplied by coal).  Moreover, Moody’s says coal companies will have difficulty accessing capital to see them through the crisis because lenders are becoming less willing to support them for environmental, social and governance (ESG) reasons. Throw in a drop in oil and natural gas prices that has made coal — for the first time — the most expensive fossil fuel in the US and you can see why the Donkin Mine closure would likely have happened even if it were the most exploitation-friendly mine in North America.

Why blame the closure on geology instead of the pandemic? If I knew the answer to that I’d probably be in PR, but it might simply be an attempt — that costs Kameron Collieries nothing — to look like a company that is actually concerned about worker safety. Or it might be an attempt to look like a company whose industry is not in “free fall.”

Whatever the reason behind it, it must be having negative consequences for workers — it means they cannot access government supports that have been made available to those who have lost employment due to the pandemic.

Click here to read “Disaster Averted?”

As with the Examiner, the Cape Breton Spectator is subscriber supported, and so this article is behind the Spectator’s paywall.

However, Campbell is also making the Spectator’s coverage of the daily briefing free for all.

Click here to purchase a subscription to the Spectator, or click on the photo below to get a joint subscription to both the Spectator and the Examiner.
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1. Under Pressure

Barbara Darby has a fascinating personal essay relating the Queen/Bowie song “Under Pressure” to the pandemic and our anxiety and fears. The piece should be taken as a whole, so I hesitate to excerpt from it, but:

At the risk of bursting into tears, not a distant possibility at all these days, I socially distance and walk alone listening to my iPod shuffle. “Under Pressure” seems so right, right now. It’s raw and angry and honest and hopeful, like we all should be.

It is a song about fear:

It’s the terror of knowing what the world is about.

Almost forty years after the song debuted, that terrifying world has been transformed. And it isn’t the world of global terror (I love this piece that says it all so beautifully: “This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For” by Laurie Penny).

If we’re not absolutely crazy scared, are we missing something? “Normal” has ground to a halt not because of fear mongering about, say, blockades but by something we cannot see. The virus saw our theoretical understandings of global integration and raised us with the reality of infection, moving via planes, trains, and automobiles. And taxis, and coughs, and hands. We’ve learned that we can flatten the curve, but there are no walls or borders or foolproof protocols to keep the virus elsewhere. And yet the troopers are putting on gloves and masks and taking their positions behind plexiglass guards, or they keeping on trucking. They show up for the shift at the hospital, the lab, the shelter, the crisis intervention centre, the SPCA.

Oh yes, and don’t forget the other invisible hand at work here, as we crash head-first into the results of decades of tax cuts, and pull-yourself-up-by-your-frayed-bootstraps mandate. Many have asked if we’re going to change after this. I don’t know. A lot of us have been playing along with a very mean society for a very long time. When we make radical changes within weeks of the alarm bell, we might consider that we’re a mean society because we can be and because it works for the people who make the rules.


Government

No public meetings.


In the harbour

07:30: CSL Tacoma, bulker, arrives at National Gypsum from Point Tupper
10:00: Ef Ava, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for Portland
11:00: Atlantic Kestrel, offshore supply ship, sails from Pier 9 for sea
11:00: Tower Bridge, LPG tanker, moves from Anchorage to Irving Oil
16:00: ZIM Vancouver, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain


Footnotes

These are difficult times for everyone, so I’m hesitant to even mention my personal business situation, which is nowhere near as dire as that of a heck of a lot of other businesses. But just to inform:

I’ve decided the Examiner is going to do whatever is required to report through the pandemic, and to make all that coverage available to everyone, for free. So for the moment we are ignoring all the budgetary discipline I’ve brought to the company. We’re spending much more than we had previously to pay writers, and that means we’re in a deficit situation. I’ve stopped taking dividend payments and pay, and I’m prepared to take the company into debt, as far into debt as the powers-that-be allow anyway.

There will be limits to what we can do, but I’m so very proud of the work that Examiner is doing right now. The writers have risen to the occasion, and they’re continuing that work. I hope you find it as important as I do.

I know lots of people are worried about how to pay rent, how to feed their families. Of course that takes precedent. But if you are able, this would be an especially good time to subscribe to support the Examiner’s work. Thanks.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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6 Comments

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  1. Just subscribed for a year! Love the Halifax Examiner! The only rational voice of the people in Nova Scotia. Thank you Tim.

  2. Thanks for following up about the issue of separate health facilities for COVID patients, that’s good to know!

    1. Actually, I didn’t read closely enough:

      “Each unit is sectioned off from other parts of the hospital.”

      How well are they sectioned off? Can staff move from section to section? I wonder how this strategy differs from Italy’s.

  3. Dave Chapman and Christopher Majka are also doing good graphical analysis – check their Facebook posts.

  4. For graphing cases with recoveries:

    In excel, have one column for total cases
    Next to it, have a column for recoveries
    Next to that, a column for deaths
    Then a forth column that is total cases – (recoveries + deaths) to get total active cases.

    Graph columns 2, 3 and 4 in a stacked area graph

    1. I have all those columns too, but it doesn’t directly get at the impact onto the health system. We need to know how many people are in hospital, in ICUs, and on ventilators, and what the capacity of the system is. Those are all moving targets, and I’m not sure all the numbers will be readily available daily.