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4/20 fizzle: Pot industry tested as virus slams economy

MICHAEL R. BLOOD, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Monday, Apr 20th, 2020

LOS ANGELES — The unofficial holiday celebrating all things cannabis arrives Monday as the nation’s emerging legal marijuana market braces for an economic blow from the coronavirus crisis, with many consumers reducing spending or going underground for deals.

It was supposed to be a long weekend of festivals and music culminating on April 20, or 4/20, the code for marijuana’s high holiday. Instead, it has been reduced to an online replica because of stay-at-home orders to curb the pandemic.

Virtual parties and video chats are replacing vast outdoor smoking sessions to mark the rise of legalization and celebrate cannabis culture. The origins of the annual celebration are believed tied to a group of Northern California high school friends, who used the code as slang for smoking pot in the early 1970s.

“Stay home,” the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said bluntly. San Francisco Mayor London Breed threatened arrests: “We will not tolerate anyone coming to San Francisco for 4/20 this year.”

For businesses, 4/20 is usually their once-a-year Black Friday, when sales soar. Instead, they are reporting up-and-down buying and pondering an uncertain future.

The pandemic means the world economy could face its worst year since the Great Depression in the 1930s. In a sign of what’s to come, U.S. retail sales overall dropped nearly 9% in March — a record. Millions are out of work.

As for the holiday, “there’s a sombre feeling to this one,” said Jordan Lams, CEO of Pure CA, which specializes in marijuana extracts and does business as Moxie brand products. Before the outbreak, “it was going to be the biggest 4/20 in history,” Lams said.

Steve White, CEO of Arizona-based Harvest Health & Recreation, said he’s watching to see if consumers treat marijuana more like beer or toilet paper when money runs short.

When the economy tumbles, beer sales traditionally spike. With toilet paper, panic-buying might empty shelves but people do not use more of it. They just buy less later.

It will be a telling year, because no one in the relatively new industry knows if sales will plunge, stay flat or even rise.

“Do people buy less cannabis, or does it become more ingrained as part of their daily life?” White said.

The uncertainty in the market poses the latest challenge for an industry that’s expanded in some form to all but a handful of states.

The risks are spotlighted in California, where businesses contend with hefty taxes, an illicit market that still dwarfs the legal one and a tourism-reliant economy that’s crippled by virus restrictions.

Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, most banks don’t want to do business with pot companies and they aren’t included in the coronavirus rescue package that will help other businesses.

Before the virus, “we were already teetering on … an edge of a cannabis collapse,” said Los Angeles dispensary owner Jerred Kiloh, who heads the United Cannabis Business Association. “It’s going to be very difficult for cannabis businesses to make it through this pandemic.”

That’s despite the onset of stay-at-home orders in March that sent marijuana sales rocketing; some businesses reported single-day records as customers stocked up. New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were among the cities that labeled dispensaries essential businesses that could remain open.

But since then, business generally has flattened or tapered off, even with deliveries and curbside pickups growing to reduce health risks. Marijuana data trackers BDS Analytics documented sales surges through much of March, but then consumers pulled back in late March and early April, with sales mostly below average.

In Oregon, cannabis retailers saw a huge spike last month — a 30% increase in average sales per retailer compared with March 2019. Sales increases mid-month were even larger.

However, the peak has levelled off and customers are coming in less frequently but buying more, said David Alport, who owns two Bridge City Collective stores in Portland. He’s hired three more employees to handle home deliveries.

In Illinois, marijuana businesses can keep operating under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. Companies made sweeping changes that included appointment-only sales and online ordering.

The Mission dispensary on Chicago’s South Side saw an initial spike in purchases before the lockdown took effect, but that’s levelled off.

“We’ve never faced an economic downturn when cannabis was legal,” said Kris Krane, president of Mission dispensaries. “This is completely unprecedented.”

Some customers could be especially vulnerable during an economic downturn. Among cannabis users in states where its legal, 32% have incomes below $35,000 and only 54% have full-time employment, according to BDS Analytics. Anyone on a tight budget might be more apt to avoid taxes that go with legal purchases and buy from illicit market dealers.

Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of Harbourside dispensaries in California, said it’s difficult to predict what’s next, with no template for how cannabis consumers will react in a deep economic downturn.

Still, he notes that the industry has endured for years through times good and bad, even when consumers had only one option — illegal purchases. Consumers who see marijuana as part of their daily routine will keep coming back, he predicted.

But, for businesses, there will be a “sorting out,” DeAngelo said. Companies with strong brands and cash reserves are likely to fare better in a poor economy; those saddled with heavy debt who made too-rosy promises to investors will face challenges.

“There is not going to be an extinction moment,” DeAngelo said. “It’s going to prove more resilient than many, many other industries.”

___

Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Portland, Oregon, and Kathleen Foody in Chicago contributed. Blood, Flaccus and Foody are members of AP’s marijuana beat team. Find complete AP marijuana coverage here: https://apnews.com/Marijuana. Follow Blood on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MichaelRBloodAP.

Ontario to update latest coronavirus projections

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Monday, Apr 20th, 2020

Health officials are set to present new projections about the spread of coronavirus in Ontario today.

The province reported another 568 cases of the illness and 39 additional deaths yesterday.

Ontario now has a total of 10,578 confirmed cases, a death toll of 553 and just over 5,200 cases listed as resolved.

There are currently 809 people in hospital battling COVID-19 — 247 of whom are in intensive care.

EXCLUSIVE: Sources say Brampton jail to shut down amid outbreak of COVID-19

CRISTINA HOWORUN | posted Monday, Apr 20th, 2020

The Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton is scheduled to temporarily close by end of business on Monday after at least three correctional officers tested positive for COVID-19.

Several sources confirm to CityNews that the Ministry of the Solicitor General aims to move approximately 140 inmates currently housed in the facility to Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke over the next 24 hours. All current staff at the Brampton jail, which focuses on rehabilitating inmates with substance abuse or a history of sexual offences, are expected to be placed on a 14 day paid quarantine, before being redeployed to other parts of Ontario’s correctional system.

Peel Public Health declared an outbreak at the jail on Thursday after three correctional officers at the facility tested positive for COVID-19 and were potentially contagious while at work. Several inmates are currently being tested for the potentially deadly virus although CityNews could not confirm how many. As of late last week, the province confirmed four inmates – three at Toronto South and one at Monteith Correctional Facility – had tested positive for COVID-19.

To date, five correctional officers – including one at Toronto South – have tested positive for COVID19.

According to internal documents obtained by CityNews, during the shutdown the jail will be professionally cleaned and sterilized.

Requests for comment from the Ministry of the Solicitor General and the office of the Solicitor General were not immediately returned.

Ontario lifts roadblock preventing auto insurance companies from offering rebates

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Apr 17th, 2020

Ontario is making a regulatory change that will more easily allow auto insurance companies to provide breaks to their customers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The change will allow insurance companies to provide auto insurance premium rebates to consumers for up to 12 months after the emergency has ended.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips says he will be watching to see companies’ responses.

“All of us will remember how companies treat us during these unprecedented times,” said Phillips. “Insurance companies indicated that the regulation preventing rebates was a barrier to providing relief to their customers. That barrier has now been removed so auto insurance companies can step up and do the right thing for the people and families of Ontario.”

Phillips says Ontario isn’t dictating a certain percentage of rebate for companies to provide, but he says it needs to be “commensurate with the scale of duress that Ontario families are under.”

He says some companies have already done this, and the province wants to make it as easy as possible for drivers to receive discounts because so few people are driving right now.

Allstate Insurance Co. of Canada is giving all of its drivers a “stay at home payment” of about 25 per cent of their monthly auto premium.

CAA Insurance has said a 10 per cent reduction for a year for both new and existing customers, once they renew, will be automatically applied.

Intact Financial Corp. and Aviva Canada are offering discounts of 15 per cent for customers who are driving less and reductions of 75 per cent for customers who park and store their vehicles.

Most companies are also offering to defer payments for customers in financial difficulty and waive non-sufficient fund fees.

The NDP has called on the Ontario government to mandate a three-month, 50 per cent discount on auto insurance.

Small business closures threaten Toronto’s culture, owners say

NICOLE THOMPSON THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Apr 17th, 2020

Sam Conover has been running the numbers, trying to figure out how long she can keep the lights on at her Toronto-based lingerie store after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to temporarily move the business online.

Not only was opening Broad Lingerie, which specializes in bras for larger bust sizes, Conover’s dream, it was also part of an effort to revitalize the once economically depressed Danforth East neighbourhood she calls home.

“I fear that this is going to result in going back to the bad old days where everything is boarded up, and the only things that are able to survive are, you know, a big Shoppers Drug Mart,” Conover said.

Conover is one of a number of small-business owners in Toronto struggling to stay afloat as they grapple with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prospect of permanent closures raises questions about whether Canada’s most populous city will come out of this crisis with its distinct texture intact, and is top of mind for Toronto Mayor John Tory.

“One of my greatest fears is that Toronto comes through this crisis and sees its main street businesses decimated and our streets devoid of the activity that make our city’s life in normal times so exciting and so fulfilling,” Tory told a news conference this week.

Not the least, he noted, because of the businesses’ importance to the economy.

“I don’t have to tell you that Toronto’s main streets are absolutely critical to the success of our city,” Tory said. “They are the backbones of our residential neighbourhoods and an important component of the quality of life that we all enjoy. And we use them as a way of selling people on the Toronto experience.”

Conover said she was able to pay her two staff members until the end of March, but after that, she had little choice but to lay them off — temporarily, she hopes.

She’s now running the online store on her own, but it’s unclear how long that will pay the rent, particularly as the shutdown goes on and would-be customers start cutting back on spending.

“I was always working a lot, but it’s harder now, not knowing is this work for anything if I might end up having to shut my doors completely?” she said.

Her landlord has said she may be able to defer May rent and Conover has applied for the loan the federal government is offering to small businesses. But she said if she’s approved, it may lead to a pile of debt she’s unsure she’ll be able to climb out of.

Those federal safety nets have already failed Vesuvio Pizzeria and Spaghetti House, a family-owned business that has been a fixture of the Junction neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end for 63 years.

Despite offering delivery and take-out during the pandemic, the owners announced in a Facebook post that they could no longer afford to stay open and would not reopen after the crisis passes.

The news prompted hours-long lineups as people tried to purchase a final pie, but Piera Pugliese said she doubts the boost will change her 81-year-old husband Ettore’s mind about closing down his business.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I don’t think it will hold us,” Pugliese said, noting her husband and his business partner wanted to retire anyway.

But she said this isn’t how they hoped it would happen.

“We wanted a party,” she said. “A farewell. A chance for customers to come in and see us, and give us a hug.”

Instead, they will close quietly on Sunday, and Ettore and Piera Pugliese won’t be there _ they’ve been self-isolating at home for several weeks, thankful for the staff who have put themselves on the front lines in their stead.

It’s that fate Brooke Manning is working diligently to avoid, taking a multi-pronged approach to keep her seven-year-old business open.

Likely General — part retail store, part event space and part art gallery — has moved its operations online and Manning said she’s spending hours delivering local orders in an effort to make as much money as possible.

A couple of artists she regularly works with have also launched an online fundraiser to keep her in business, with a goal of raising $25,000 — the equivalent of two months’ operating costs. So far, it’s raised $10,000.

“After seven years of working my butt off at what we’re doing — I never stopped working — to think that it would all end….That would just kill me.”

Scarborough facility confirms death of long-time personal support worker to coronavirus

BT Toronto | posted Friday, Apr 17th, 2020

A personal support worker at a long-term care facility in Scarborough has died as a result of coronavirus.

The woman, a 31-year service veteran, was employed at Altamont Care Community.

“Today we received the difficult news of the passing of a much-loved and valued team member from Altamont Care Community,” read a brief statement issued by the President and CEO Lois Cormack. “She will be sadly missed by all of her colleagues and by all the residents she cared for.”

According to the City of Toronto, there were 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Altamont and eight confirmed deaths as of April 15.

In a letter addessed to Premier Doug Ford, Sharleen Stewart, president of the Services Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU), said the organization is “mourning the loss of our dear member of 31 years from Scarborough, a caring and compassionate personal support worker (PSW) who died because of COVID-19.”

Stewart is calling for an immediate sit down with the premier, health minister and Ontario’s chief medical officer to discuss further actions the government can take to “support frontline healthcare workers as they fight for all of us against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Among those actions, Stewart is calling on the provincial government to take over administration and operation of Eatonville Care Place and Anson Place Care Centre, saying “lives are literally at stake.”

At Eatonville, 31 residents have died from coronavirus and there are a total of 79 positive cases. The long-term care facility says everyone there will now be tested and the expanded testing criteria from Toronto Public Health will help them better understand the scope of the outbreak.

“Our members working on the frontline of these facilities have lost all confidence that everything that can be done is being done to keep people safe and protected,” said Stewart. “We believe management at these facilites have failed.”

Ontario expanded its priority COVID-19 testing Thursday to include essential workers, residents and staff of homeless shelters and group homes, and people living with health-care workers.

There have been 104 outbreaks reported in long-term care homes, with cases in 933 residents and 530 staff members. At least 163 residents have died.

Trump gives governors options on how to reopen U.S. economy

ZEKE MILLER, ALAN SUDERMAN AND KEVIN FREKING, THE ASSOCIATED PRES | posted Friday, Apr 17th, 2020

President Donald Trump has given governors a road map for recovering from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic, laying out “a phased and deliberate approach” to restoring normal activity in places that have strong testing and are seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases.

“We’re starting our life again,” Trump said during his daily press briefing. “We’re starting rejuvenation of our economy again.”

He added, “This is a gradual process.”

The new guidelines are aimed at easing restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, while holding the line in harder-hit locations. They make clear that the return to normalcy will be a far longer process than Trump initially envisioned, with federal officials warning that some social distancing measures may need to remain in place through the end of the year to prevent a new outbreak. And they largely reinforce plans already in the works by governors, who have primary responsibility for public health in their states.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told the governors Thursday afternoon in a conference call, according to an audio recording obtained by The Associated Press. “We’re going to be standing alongside of you.”

Places with declining infections and strong testing would begin a three-phase gradual reopening of businesses and schools.

In phase one, for instance, the plan recommends strict social distancing for all people in public. Gatherings larger than 10 people are to be avoided and nonessential travel is discouraged.

In phase two, people are encouraged to maximize social distancing and limit gatherings to no more than 50 people unless precautionary measures are taken. Travel could resume.

Phase three envisions a return to normalcy for most Americans, with a focus on identification and isolation of any new infections.

Trump said recent trends in some states were so positive that they could almost immediately begin taking the steps laid out in phase one.

“They will be able to go literally tomorrow,” Trump said.

The guidelines recommend that states pass checkpoints that look at new cases, testing and surveillance data over the prior 14 days before advancing from one phase to another.

Governors of both parties made clear they will move at their own pace.

Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said the guidelines “seem to make sense.”

“We’re days, maybe weeks away from the starting line and then you have to have 14 days of declining cases, of declining symptoms and hospital capacity that exists in case you have a rebound,” he said.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Trump ally, cautiously floated the idea of reopening parts of the state, but said testing capacity and contact tracing would need to be considerably ramped up before restrictions could be safely lifted.

“All would be forgotten very quickly if we moved into a stage quicker than we should, and then we got into a situation where we had people dying like flies,” Justice told reporters.

At the earliest, the guidelines suggest, some parts of the country could see a resumption in normal commerce and social gatherings after a month of evaluating whether easing up on restrictions has led to a resurgence in virus cases. In other parts of the country, or if virus cases pick up, it could be substantially longer.

In briefing governors on the plan, Trump said they were going to be responsible for deciding when it is safe to lift restrictions in their states. Just days before, he had drawn swift pushback for claiming he had absolute authority to determine how and when states reopen.

“We have a very large number of states that want to get going and they’re in very good shape,” Trump said. “That’s good with us, frankly.”

The guidelines also include general recommendations to businesses as they plan for potential reopenings, suggesting temperature-taking, rapid COVID-19 testing and widespread disinfection efforts in workplaces.

Those most susceptible to the respiratory disease are advised to remain sheltered in place until their area enters the final phase — and even then are encouraged to take precautions to avoid close contact with other people.

Governors, for their part, have been moving ahead with their own plans for how to safely revive normal activity. Seven Midwestern governors announced Thursday they will co-ordinate on reopening their economies. Similar pacts were announced earlier in the week in the West and Northeast.

Two in three Americans expressed concerns that restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus would be eased too quickly, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday. More than 30,000 people in the United States have died from the virus.

Trump on Thursday claimed the U.S. has “built the most advanced and robust testing anywhere in the world.” But even people close to him warned more would be necessary.

“We are struggling with testing at a large scale,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told ABC’s “The View.” “You really can’t go back to work until we have more tests.”

Former Vice-President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in November’s presidential election, said Thursday evening that Trump “kind of punted.”

“We’re not going to be able to really make significant changes in the three phases the president’s talking about until we’re able to test much more broadly,” Biden said on CNN.

Suderman reported from Richmond, Va. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Washington, Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, Anthony Izaguirre in Charleston, W.Va., Mike Stobbe in New York and Mike Catalini in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.

WestJet to lay off 1,700 pilots after COVID-19 shutters airline travel

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, Apr 16th, 2020

WestJet is planning to lay off up to 1,700 pilots as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which has shuttered commercial airline travel.

The union representing the pilots with WestJet, WestJet Encore and Swoop says the first 700 layoffs will take effect May 1 with an additional 1,000 layoffs coming June 1.

The layoffs will be done in reverse seniority order, meaning those pilots who were hired most recently will be the first to be furloughed.

“Issuing layoffs, in response to this crisis, has always been a last resort for WestJet; however, the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry is colossal, and WestJet is making difficult but necessary decisions to right-size our airline to weather the crisis,” the airline said in a statement.

WestJet adds that almost three-quarters of its fleet has been grounded due to the dramatic reduction in flying due to COVID-19.

Air Canada said plans to rehire 16,500 laid-off workers via Ottawa’s emergency wage subsidy program after they were let go under a cost reduction program that saw nearly half of the airline’s 36,000 employees lose their jobs.

Air Canada has suspended most international flights until June, while Air Transat and Sunwing Airlines have cancelled all trips until May 31 due to the pandemic.

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