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Raptors lose first season opener in eight years in loss to Pelicans

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Dec 24th, 2020

Brandon Ingram scored 24 points and JJ Redick added 23 as the New Orleans Pelicans beat Toronto 113-99 in the Raptors’ season opener Wednesday at Amalie Arena.

Pascal Siakam had 20 points in one of the bright spots of the loss, the Raptors’ first defeat in a season opener in eight seasons. Kyle Lowry added 18 points and 10 assists, Aron Baynes had 11 points and nine rebounds, and Norman Powell and Chris Boucher chipped in with 12 points apiece.

The Raptors led for most of the first half but went ice cold in the third quarter. They went 0-for-10 from three-point range and were outscored 38-22 in the frame, and trailed 88-79 to start the fourth.

The Pelicans kept their foot on the gas in the fourth, and when Redick knocked down a three-pointer with 5:15 to play, New Orleans led by 14 points.

The Raptors went a horrible 2-for-17 from distance in the second half.

Siakam had been enjoying a career year before the NBA shut down for COVID-19 last March, and was never quite himself when the league resumed in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World. Fans weren’t kind to the 26-year-old when the Raptors were eliminated by Boston in the second round of the playoffs.

Siakam said he’d lost his love of the game. It looked like it was back on Wednesday.

Siakam not only scored on an array of shots, but pitched some excellent passes out of crowds.

The night marked the beginning of the most bizarre season in Raptors history, a small crowd of about 3,000 fans dotting Amalie Arena. The venue will be Toronto’s temporary home for at least the first half of the season due to Canada’s travel restrictions around COVID-19.

In a sign of these strange times, the Raptor mascot waved the team flag before the game clad in a black protective face mask.

The Raptors tipped off a few hours after the league announced Houston’s game against Oklahoma City was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests plus James Harden’s violation of the league’s coronavirus protocols left the Rockets without the league-mandated eight available players.

It was a discouraging blow on Day 2 of a season that feels like the league is playing with its collective fingers crossed while the pandemic continues to rage in the U.S.

The Raptors had their own scare earlier in the day. Powell was listed as questionable after some inconclusive tests with someone in his “circle of people,” coach Nick Nurse said.

Nurse said despite the rocky start, he’s “fairly comfortable” about playing.

“I understand that there are some people – players and staff, et cetera – testing positive. I’d be much more concerned if there was a number of players going to the hospital, a number of staff going to the hospital, and I just don’t see that as the case with all these colleges and universities and all the athletes that test.”

Amalie Arena is one of just a few facilities around the league that is permitting a limited number of fans this season.

The Raptors trailed in the early minutes, but Siakam’s three capped a mini 7-0 run that put Toronto up by four. The Raptors led 26-23 to start the second quarter.

Siakam knocked down back-to-back three-pointers – both off passes from sharp-shooter Matt Thomas – to put the Raptors up by 11 with 1:46 left in the first half. Toronto took a 57-50 advantage into the halftime break.

The Raptors now depart on their first road trip of the regular season, playing against former teammate DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs in San Antonio on Boxing Day. They play at Philadelphia on Dec. 28.

11 COVID-19 cases confirmed at four Mississauga fire stations

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, Dec 24th, 2020

The City of Mississauga has confirmed 11 positive cases of COVID-19 at four of its fire stations.

An additional 36 staff members are currently self-isolating, according to a statement released Wednesday night.

“With a team of more than 630 firefighters at 21 stations, we are able to adjust our crews and ensure public safety is never compromised,” said Acting Fire Chief Nancy Macdonald-Duncan. “We remain ready to respond and provide fire safety across Mississauga.”

The city says it is working closely with Peel Public Health to notify impacted personnel and ensure isolation and testing protocols are being followed.

Peel Region reported 484 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday with Mississauga accounting for 161 of the new infections.

Province cancels in-vehicle road tests due to COVID-19

BT Toronto | posted Wednesday, Dec 23rd, 2020

New drivers hoping to take a road test as part of the province’s vehicle licensing requirements will now have to wait, as nearly all in-vehicle tests have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government said Tuesday afternoon.

Testing done in Southern Ontario has been shut down until at least Jan. 23rd, the ministry said. In Northern Ontario, testing will not be available until after Jan. 9th.

“We know that these measures may be a serious inconvenience for people waiting for a road test,” said Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney in a news release Tuesday. “However, these are unprecedented times and our number one priority remains protecting the health and safety of individuals, families and workers.”

The government said commercial road testing and other commercial vehicle services will continue “to ensure the continued safe movement of essential goods and services.”

DriveTest centres will also stay open, while observing COVID-19 precautions.

The government said people who have to wait to take the in-vehicle test won’t be penalized.

“DriveTest clients will receive a credit in the system in order to rebook their test when the provincewide shutdown period ends and the region is at a lower-risk COVID-19 level,” the government said.

‘Fighting for our lives’: Canada’s theatre industry tries to plan for uncertain 2021

VICTORIA AHEARN, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, Dec 23rd, 2020

TORONTO — Outdoor productions. Concert versions of musicals. Shorter shows with no intermission.

As the Canadian theatre world grapples with closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, producers are thinking of ways to safely put on live performances for audiences in the coming months, as a vaccine rollout offers the possibility of productions resuming.

But with constantly changing guidelines and uncertainty over when crowds can gather again, those who mount shows say they’re trying to be as nimble, flexible and innovative as possible, knowing that everything can be shifted on them at a moment’s notice.

“Our new philosophy here is: Nothing is certain until after it has happened,” John Karastamatis, director of sales and marketing at Toronto-based Mirvish Productions, said in an interview.

“Building the plane while you’re flying it is a really apt description of how we’ve been operating,” said Kevin Loring, artistic director of Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre Canada.

“Our weekly operations are planning, planning, planning — and then at the same time, unplanning, unplanning, unplanning.”

Mirvish halted productions in March and the start of its new subscription season has been pushed to September 2021The theatre giant had hoped to safely stage the sound-installation production “Blindness” before the new year, but rising COVID-19 case counts and more lockdowns scrapped that plan.

In an interview early last month, Karastamatis said they still want to put on “Blindness,” once lockdown ends. Safety measures at the Princess of Wales Theatre would include patrons sitting physically distanced onstage with a “very powerful air circulation system.” There would be no concession stands, no physical tickets and no intermission.

Financially, Mirvish wouldn’t even break even from the production but wants to do it as a symbol of hope for the theatre community, said Karastamatis.

Mirvish has also considered doing concert versions of musicals, including the homegrown hit “Come From Away,” because it would cost less than putting on an entire production, he said.

“The big fear is that the artists that exist won’t have a way of practising their art,” he said. “And the industry that has been built around the performing arts will wither and die, and it won’t exist anymore. And we, as an industry, are fighting for our lives.”

Ottawa’s National Arts Centre says it’s been thinking on a more local scale these days rather than counting on productions with international artists or even those from other regions in Canada who might face travel restrictions.

Beyond the typical pandemic protocols like masks, sanitizer, distancing measures and virtual tickets, the NAC is also looking at more solo works or outdoor projects, said Loring.

The NAC’s Indigenous theatre is creating an online audio project, featuring Indigenous storytelling about the land of certain locations within cities.

The organization is trying to plan seasons for the next year or two with budgets that “have been deeply slashed,” while also taking things “week by week,” said Loring.

“The vaccine is promising and hopeful, and as soon as it’s available to us, we’ll all take it. But we’ll still have to combat the reticence to come back into public spaces,” Loring said.

Like many arts institutions, the NAC went in a digital direction when the pandemic began, including livestreaming performances on Facebook as part of a partnership with the social media giant.

“We’ve had to really rethink our business, reshape our business, find ways to get art to people, find ways to get money into the hands of artists,” said Robyn Gilcrest, the NAC’s senior director of visitor experience and patron services.

Sponsorship partners are vital but tough to find, with every sector facing cutbacks and layoffs, said Loring.

“The big fear is that we’re going to lose so many artists in the ecology as this thing drags on — people just jumping because they don’t see anything for the next few years,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., announced its first deficit in 21 years due to the pandemic.

Stage and screen star Colm Feore said he has friends and colleagues in the industry who’ve started working factory jobs to get by.

“It’s been absolutely catastrophic,” Feore, who narrates Audible.ca show “True North Heists,” said in a recent interview from Stratford, Ont., home of the Stratford Festival.

“And particularly in Stratford, where we live and my wife (Donna Feore) is a director-choreographer. She was busy working on ‘Chicago’ and Steven Page’s, new musical, ‘Here’s What it Takes.’ And I was doing ‘Richard III’ — we were in full swing, and then it just stopped. And a couple of weeks later, we were all released from our contracts.”

The renowned Stratford Festival had to issue nearly 500 temporary layoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

To help reach audiences and provide work to artists, the southwestern Ontario theatre company launched its own streaming service, Stratfest@Home, in October.

Organizers plan to announce the festival’s summer programming by early March. Beyond the usual COVID protocols, they’re considering digital program books, new ventilation systems in venues, Plexiglas separation indoors and no-contact service. They’re also considering shorter plays that won’t need an intermission, to prevent crowds from gathering.

Stratford is also looking at physically distanced experiences outdoors, like the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake did with concerts in the fall. The Shaw also staged some indoor concerts under strict pandemic protocols and announced its 2021 season in October, with plans to return to the stage in May.

“People cry, because it’s just such a privilege to gather with humans and hear live music,” said actor-singer Alexis Gordon, who was part of the Shaw outdoor performances after a summer spent cutting and wrapping cheese at a Stratford dairy to make money during theatre closures. She’s also in two projects for Stratfest@Home —  “The Early Modern Cooking Show” and “Up Close and Musical.”

The past year also has theatre companies wanting to stage shows that reflect the current racial reckoning and social justice issues.

“I think that representation and diversity conversations that are being had are going to shape the work and the nature of the work and the ways in which we work for the years to come,” said Loring.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

Ontario to cut hydro rates, provide student funding during 28-day lockdown

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, Dec 23rd, 2020

Ontario says it will provide new financial assistance for residents during a provincewide lockdown that starts on Boxing Day.

The province says it will cut hydro prices for 28 days, starting Jan. 1, as Ontarians are encouraged to stay home as much as possible to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The reduction to the off-peak rate of 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour will automatically be credited on ratepayers’ bills.

The government says it will also provide $200 to families with high school students aged 13 through to Grade 12.

The money can be used to help offset education expenses as all schools move lessons online for the first week of January. Students will then gradually return to in-class learning depending on their location and grade level.

The lockdown, announced Monday, is being imposed as Ontario tries to bring soaring COVID-19 cases under control.

It will shutter all non-essential businesses, ban indoor gatherings, close restaurant dining rooms, and means Ontarians are advised to leave home only for essential trips.

The restrictions will remain in place for southern Ontario until Jan. 23, but will lift for northern Ontario – where there are fewer cases – on Jan. 9.

Small businesses innovating via Instagram to stay afloat during COVID-19

DILSHAD BURMAN | posted Wednesday, Dec 23rd, 2020

As Ontario prepares for a second lockdown on Boxing Day, it is yet another body blow to small businesses that have been struggling to survive since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were first announced in March.

Many have gone out of business, others may not make it through this lockdown and still others are hanging by a thread.

Contending with closures, zero foot traffic and layoffs has led many small businesses to ramp up their presence online, where customers have also migrated to shop for everything from Christmas presents to toilet paper. Innovation is the name of the game to stay afloat and some local businesses and entrepreneurs have taken to Instagram to do just that.

Daphne Nissani, Boa Boutique

Daphne Nissani, owner of Boa Boutique in Toronto and Oakville, has found a unique way to use Instagram’s live video feature to move inventory, by conducting interactive live sales and auctions.

“I’ve done 60 live [videos] and over 150 hours of lives,” said Nissani, who launched the weekly broadcasts just two days after non-essential businesses were ordered closed in March.

She says the idea initially came from another boutique owner, but auctions run in Nissani’s blood.

“My father was a professional auctioneer and I thought – let’s try it,” she said. “I didn’t know how long [the lockdown] was going to last and I didn’t want to get stuck with dated inventory. So I thought, what the heck?”

The process is involved and exhausting. Nissani goes live on Instagram for three hours at a time with a collection of items curated for the sale.

Customers tune in and either bid on or claim items as she displays them, often modelling them herself, while fielding questions and feedback from those watching and shopping. Those who purchase items pay via e-transfer and sold items are then sent to one of their two locations for curbside pickup or shipping.

“You get used to it. We’ve developed this formula … we’ve learned how to adapt to this new channel of distribution,” said Nissani of her team. “It requires a lot of technique and an ability to connect with people on the show,” while remaining organized and meticulously keeping track of every sale.

Nissani says Instagram makes the execution of the concept easy for both her business and her customers — a blessing given the idea was just an experiment to begin with.

“[There was] this sense that you have to do something, you don’t know what it is and you don’t want to take too many risks and you don’t want to lose too much of your profit. But if nothing’s ever been done before and everything is so unprecedented, then you may as well try,” she said.

The gamble has paid off and she’s been able to sell stock and serve customers — unconventionally, but successfully.

“I never would have imagined I would become a fashion auctioneer. I couldn’t even imagine being in front of the camera so much. I wasn’t prepared, but I got prepared and you do what you have to do,” she said.

Miheer Shete, Curryish

Miheer Shete is the chef and owner of Curryish — a business he launched entirely on Instagram.

Shete was the chef de cuisine at a fine dining restaurant in Toronto when the pandemic hit Canada’s shores. With restaurants forced to close in the spring, he was temporarily laid off like millions of others in the field.

“I really enjoyed the family time [at first]. Then, the reality hit and I [realised] this is not going away anytime soon and we’ve got to do something, quickly,” says Shete.

As a chef, he always dreamed of one day owning his own restaurant, but those ambitions didn’t seem realistic at this time.

“I had a great career, great job with a great company and all of a sudden, the restaurant was shut down,” he said. “[I thought] what’s plan B? I can’t just go down so easily.”

While trying to find a way to stay afloat, Shete says he was reminded of the entrepreneurial spirit of people in his home city of Mumbai, India.

“Back in India, this is a very common practice. People start something very small,” he said. “I have seen my mom or aunts cooking from home or starting something small and they provide this very unique experience. Not a restaurant experience, but a different experience where you get to connect with your guests one-on-one — and the delivery option was the ‘dabbawalla’.”

Dabbawallas are lunch box delivery men who carry meals from homes across Mumbai to offices and schools, in time for the lunch hour, every day. It is widely regarded as the most organized and proficient food delivery service in the world.

The ideas all came together in his new business Curryish – gourmet meal kits of what he calls “Indian Toronto food” delivered to your door.

He said the decision to launch it on Instagram was spontaneous, simply because he was familiar with it as a casual user.

“I’d never thought, in my head, that I would ever start a business through Instagram,” he said. “I just didn’t know any better way to do it.”

Shete says the ease of use of the platform was the main draw and the options to promote posts was a welcome bonus.

He posts a weekly menu online with a limit of about 50 to 60 meals available. Customers send him a direct message with their order and then e-transfer payment. On the weekend, they receive a meal kit with a few prepared as well as do-it-yourself components, along with cooking and plating instructions.

Initially, Shete delivered the kits himself, but says the response has been overwhelmingly positive and he sells out almost every week. He’s now had to enlist the help of a few more ‘dabbawallas’ for his deliveries.

There are some challenges when it comes to keeping up with regular content creation on the account, Shete explains, but his customers have also helped in spreading the word.

“I have a very loyal customer base — some of them have been ordering every week. Their word-of-mouth has been the strongest weapon for me,” he said.

Curryish now has a website and in the long run, Shete still hopes to have a storefront, but feels the current model has been a very successful spring board.

“I feel lucky, blessed and proud at the same time. But I still know there’s lots of work to be done,” he said.

Casey Cunningham, Bohemian Blooms Shop

Photographer Casey Cunningham had to quickly pivot her fledgling plant and vintage business into her main source of income when COVID-19 restrictions led to a severe drought of work in her industry.

She began collecting plants six years ago, initially using Facebook’s marketplace feature to sell a few plants as a hobby. She later launched Bohemian Blooms on Instagram in the fall of 2019 and says it has seen exponential growth during the pandemic.

“Now it’s like a full-blown little shop,” she said. “I think everyone was at home and just got sick of staring at the empty space and they realized how much plants actually bring to your home. And it just started to escalate aggressively in the best kind of way,” she said.

Cunningham runs the store out of her own home and her sales model is simple — she posts an item on her Instagram feed with its details and price and customers send her a direct message to purchase it with an e-transfer payment. She also conducts “story sales” where a series of items are posted using the platform’s “stories” feature and the first person to message, claims the item. She then offers delivery or curbside pickup.

“I just love the opportunities that Instagram gives small businesses, with a little bit of restrictions of course,” she said.

Those restrictions include a requirement of 10,000 followers before one can add website links to stories – something many small businesses could use to their advantage.

“That would be such a beneficial thing to use, but I can’t use it because I don’t have enough followers or I don’t have the engagement,” she said.

But despite the limitations, Cunningham says the Instagram store has been instrumental in helping her tide over the lean times of the pandemic.

“The plant side of the business has really helped me … because it’s supplied so much of my income, because I’m not doing photography at all,” she said.

She adds that the business has also been a learning experience as well as a creative outlet and led to much personal growth.

“Like everyone says, this has been a really crappy year and it definitely has, but this year for me has been the biggest transitional year in the best way. And I’m okay with it,” she said.

Community connection

While using Instagram has helped launch or keep their businesses afloat, all three business owners say a happy by product of the decision to use the platform in this way has been the connections they have made and the communities they have built.

Nissani says it was heartening to see customers connecting via her live auctions.

“[In the early days] there was so much uncertainty and people wanted something to do and people wanted to feel this connection and this live space had so many women — they have this desire to connect with other women. And that really happens naturally in its own way on the live feed,” she explains.  “We’ve gotten to know the customers and vice versa and it’s so nice to just see that connection made. I love it. It’s my favorite part.”

Shete says the instant feedback and being able to see his customers enjoying his food via their Instagram posts and stories has been very gratifying.

“The fun part is after [the meal kit] is delivered, how personally I was in contact with many customers,” he said. “People have sent me photos of their kids eating the food and they say ‘Oh, I can’t even imagine my kid is eating a daal,’ and I think that is so special. And throughout these eight months of Curryish, I was able to connect with that one-on-one factor so much.”

Cunningham says she finds the plant community in particular to be very kind and supportive.

“There’s a lot of kindness and just compassion, which is really nice to see, especially in the times that we live in right now,” she said. “It keeps me going and keeps me wanting to keep like selling and it’s the connection that I get with people that I love the most.”

Airline watchdog ordered to develop new rules for flight cancellation refunds

JON VICTOR THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Tuesday, Dec 22nd, 2020

The federal government is directing the Canadian Transportation Agency to strengthen rules that require airlines to refund passengers for cancelled flights.

In a statement Monday, Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the pandemic has highlighted a gap in Canada’s protections for airline passengers, which weren’t designed to cover such lengthy delays.

“In the event of a future situation that causes similar large-scale flight cancellations, this gap needs to be closed so that travellers are treated fairly,” Garneau said.

Existing CTA rules don’t require airlines to offer refunds if they can get passengers to the destination within a reasonable time period — for example, offering a next-day flight if a snowstorm grounds planes. But passenger advocates say that doesn’t work for the indefinite delays ticket-holders currently face and are lobbying the government to mandate that airlines issue cash refunds, rather than travel vouchers, for flights that were cancelled due to COVID-19.

At least 3.9 million passengers have been affected by cancelled flights due to COVID-19, according to Gabor Lukacs, the founder of Air Passenger Rights, one of the groups advocating for airlines to issue refunds.

Scott Streiner, chair and chief executive officer of the CTA, said the agency’s goal is to have the new regulations in place by next summer.

One of the biggest details to be worked out between now and then include how long customers have to wait after a cancelled flight before they are entitled to a refund, Streiner said.

The agency is launching a public consultation between now and Jan. 28 to help determine the answer to that and other questions.

“This is a major priority for us,” Streiner said.

The new rules would apply to future cancellations only and will not be retroactive.

Garneau said the updated regulations should be “fair and reasonable” to passengers and should not impose an undue burden on airlines “that could lead to their insolvency.”

Airline passenger refunds have emerged as a point of contention between airlines and the government, which are currently negotiating the terms of an aid package for the struggling travel sector.

The federal government has said that any aid to the sector would be contingent on giving passengers full refunds for cancelled flights.

Airlines maintain that they are not legally required to issue refunds and have criticized Ottawa for its delay in issuing more assistance to the sector.

Lukacs says he warned the government in an in-person meeting and written communications in 2019 that Canada’s protections for airline passengers were weak and could be misinterpreted by airlines to avoid issuing refunds.

Air Passenger Rights’ communications with both Transport Canada and CTA cast doubt on the government’s claim that it discovered this issue as a result of the pandemic, Lukacs said.

In response to a question about whether the government was aware of regulation gaps prior to the pandemic, Transport Canada spokeswoman Allison St-Jean didn’t answer directly. “We are encouraged by recent efforts by air carriers to provide options for cancelled flights and refunds in some cases,” she said.

The CTA said it has only now received legal authority to develop regulations requiring airlines to issue refunds if a flight is cancelled for reasons beyond the airline’s control and passengers can’t complete their itinerary within a reasonable timeframe.

Stephanie Kusie, a Conservative MP and the shadow minister for transport, said in a tweet Monday afternoon that the government’s proposal fails to address the problem of outstanding passenger refunds.

Similarly, Lukacs said the new regulations wouldn’t be of any help to those passengers who have already had their flights cancelled.

“This would provide no relief to passengers who have been shortchanged,” Lukacs said. “Regardless of what they do with the regulations, the law is already that passengers are entitled to a refund.”

Raptors, OG Anunoby agree to four-year, $72M extension

SPORTSNET STAFF | posted Tuesday, Dec 22nd, 2020

The Toronto Raptors have agreed to a multi-year contract extension with forward OG Anunoby, the team announced Monday.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports the contract is for $72 million over four years and includes a player option for the 2024-25 season.

The contract will begin in the 2021-22 season, as Anunoby still has one year remaining on his rookie deal. The deadline for Anunoby to sign his extension was Monday at 6 p.m. ET, or else he would have become a restricted free agent next off-season.

“OG is the epitome of the skilled, powerful, determined player we want in our organization long-term. Remember, he doesn’t shoot to miss,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said in a statement. “We’re really pleased OG will be with us for seasons to come.”

The Raptors selected Anunoby 23rd overall in 2017 and he hit the ground running the following season, starting 62 of 74 games as a 20-year-old rookie. A versatile six-foot-eight forward, Anunoby has played every position but point guard in his three-year Raptors career, adding shooting guard to his resume this past season.

The 23-year-old posted new career highs in points (10.6), rebounds (5.3), assists (1.6) and steals (1.4) per game last season, while improving his shooting volume and success rate.

He cemented himself in Raptors lore this summer when he hit a last-second buzzer-beater to defeat the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Anunoby’s new contract now locks in the final piece of the next generation of Raptors stars long term after forward Pascal Siakam signed a four-year, $130 million extension last summer and guard Fred VanVleet signed a four-year, $85 million contract in free agency last month. With veteran centres Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol now plying their trades in Los Angeles, and 34-year-old Kyle Lowry entering the final year of his contract, the Raptors are poised to transition into the next generation seamlessly.

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