Yesterday I took a look at the ways travel, social services, civil liberties, and supports for workers are changing in the advent of COVID-19. Today I think it’s important to restate that the pandemic could provide us insights into our regular routines and ask us whether of not we can innovate. Simon Abrams at Durham University suggests that while things are in flux, we have time to consider whether we really need those tropical vacations every year, how to support those who want to work at home more often through improvements to broadband internet, and whether we need basic universal income to support workers.
Yesterday I looked at new restrictions on international travel, as many countries have now closed borders and airlines asked governments for bailouts. Air Canada has suspended all but six of 101 of its international routes and 40 of its 53 routes to the US, laying off 5100 flight crew members. Germany juggernaut Lufthansa has cancelled 90% of its flights. Peter Harbison, chairman of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation, said that most of the 800 or so if airlines go without flights for three or four months. What would the world look like with permanent decreases in air travel?
Sharply decreased car travel due to work closures have resulted in virtually empty streets, highways, and railways all over the world. Wuhan showed a 10-30% decrease in nitrogen dioxide emissions from January 1- Feb 25 and particulates also decreased. In Northern Italy, emissions decreased by 10%. But Tony Barboza at the LA Times writes that after similar dips in daily travel during the 2008 foreclosure crisis and 1970s oil crisis, driving rates returned to normal. It remains to be seen whether decreased travel now will make people question how much and how often they need to travel within their own cities/regions as well as across the globe.
Canada’s six largest banks have said they will provide mortgage deferrals for anyone who needs them for up to six months, and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will allow deferred payments on mortgage insurance. This should prevent foreclosures due to non-payment for anyone who is unable to work due to restrictions, although some early reports from customers who have tried to obtain deferrals are not promising. Public housing residents are also protected: CMHC emailed its partners that “we also expect any housing provider who has received financing or support from CMHC, directly or via provinces and territories, to act compassionately and refrain from evictions.” In the Province of Nova Scotia, evictions of vulnerable people during the crisis have been banned and in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford assured renters they would not be evicted and promised residents and businesses extensions on their property taxes and water bills.
Utility providers, such as Hydro Nova Scotia and Fortis BC, are also instituting protections for customers who are unable to work, or become ill. Hydro NS states on its website that “Until further notice, we won’t be disconnecting power due to missed bill payments, and are stopping interest on unpaid bills.” In Ontario, Hydro One started a Pandemic Relief Fund to provide financial assistance and deferred payment for customers. These measures should also bring a lot of relief to residents struggling to pay household bills in the next month or two.
Homeless individuals may be at particular risk for contracting the virus, as they do not have stable shelter or access to bathrooms to wash their hands regularly. They may also have underlying health issues such as mental health and addiction. In Ottawa, social event at shelters have been cancelled and daily cleaning has increased. Ottawa Inner City Health will use a mobile clinic to test people at any shelter location. The Mission and Shepherds of Good Hope are seating people in shifts for meals or doing boxed meals. Calgary, which is under a state of local emergency, has closed all bars and restaurants except non-profit community kitchens or soup kitchens and religious kitchens. In San Diego, residents of homeless shelters have been tested, and local motels will be used to quarantine people.
While transit services are still running in municipalities, most public services are on hold (e.g. community centre programs, library services) except for waste management and water treatment. How are municipal planners coping with providing essential services during COVID-19?
Changes to regular meeting procedures are happening everywhere. Most municipalities, like Newmarket, ON, and Edmonton, AB and Halifax, NS have cancelled meetings, city-led engagement sessions and information events altogether.
In Ontario, Municipal Emergency Act, 2020 will allow municipalities to conduct Council, local board, and committee meetings electronically, rather than requiring an in-person quorum. The Act also allows goods and services to be delivered without being hampered by municipal noise control by-laws. In Regina, City Council is live streaming its meetings to the public and changed its building permit application process to an online process.
While the federal government announced plans yesterday to help workers who have been laid off due to the pandemic, the Province of Ontario passed its Employment Standards Amendment Act (Infectious Disease Emergencies) which allows anyone in isolation or quarantine, or who cannot work due to restrictions or school closures, to access protected leave, retroactive to January 25th when the first case was confirmed in the province. Employers are not allowed to ask their employees for sick notes.
Retail workers in Canada and the US are being praised for continuing to provide groceries and essentials, with stores closing earlier to restock shelves during the pandemic. Atlantic Superstore and Shoppers Drug Mart are providing special hours for elderly and disabled customers first thing in the morning, after all surfaces have been disinfected. Many chains have been limiting the number of each item that can be bought as a response to last week’s panic buying. While other industries are laying off workers, grocers are hiring to cope with the increased demand, including demand to fill online orders. Nathaniel Mayersohn at CNN Business suggests online shopping during the pandemic could change grocery shopping forever. In both Canada and the US, surging demand for online orders has caused major delays because even though most grocers had online services before, they weren’t well used. Last year, Toronto Life’s Alex Baldinger tested four online options: Grocery Gateway, Instacart, Fresh City Farms, and Inabuggy to determine the types of items that could be delivered, fees, and delivery times.
Will COVID-19 permanently change the ways we travel, the ways we meet as planners and elected officials, the ways we engage with the public, or the ways we support our workers?