Edmonton’s COVID-19 cases double Toronto’s as Alberta capital put under health watch


EDMONTON —
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Edmonton is experiencing its highest active case count, doubling that of Toronto.

Edmonton, with a population of 1,021,628, has 534 cases of the coronavirus — 52.3 active cases per 100,000 people.

For comparison, in Toronto alone, where 2,956,024 people live, currently has 264 cases with 8.93 infections per 100,000 residents.

The Ontario capital has had a total of 15,622 cases, whereas Edmonton has counted 2,099.

The entire Alberta capital is now under Alberta Health’s watch category for having a rate of more than 50 active cases per 100,000 people.

The city’s northeast is experiencing the worst of the local spike, where the rate is 126 active infections per 100,000, followed by Edmonton – Northgate (91 per 100,000) and Edmonton – Castle Downs (86.5 per 100,000).

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson says he’s “concerned and disappointed” with the spike in cases.

As Edmonton’s case count increases, Calgary, Alberta’s hardest city region so far in the pandemic, continues to see a drop in active infections with a total of 268.

On Monday, Alberta Health reported 359 new cases for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, increasing active infections to 1,132, as well as three more deaths.

The province later clarified that 74 of the cases were from before Aug. 14, and only reconciled in the weekend count.

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she would provide an explanation during her news conference on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., live at CTVNewsEdmonton.ca.

To date, Alberta has reported 12,412 cases of the coronavirus and 224 deaths.





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Home sales are down 69% — is this a once-in-a-decade chance to get into Toronto’s housing market?


House-hungry millennials could be forgiven for hoping that the silver lining in COVID-19’s economic rampage is an unexpected shot at the real estate market.

With home prices set to soar at the start of this year, many would-be buyers went into lockdown feeling priced out and discouraged by heated bidding wars and bully offers.

Then COVID-19 sent Greater Toronto Area home sales tumbling 69 per cent year over year in April. Some consumers still hanging on to their salaried jobs read it as a signal that the window of opportunity was opening.

On a year-over-year basis, home prices have stalled, with the average price rising only about $1,000 in April to $821,392. Still, that was down about $90,000 from February’s average price of $910,319.

While there are some opportunities in the COVID-19 housing market, experts warn those come with risk, and timing the low point is tricky for buyers. Even if this is a once-in-a-decade chance to step on the property ladder, it may be slipping away as the economy sputters back to life.

The Star asked six experts — two economists, three real estate brokers and a mortgage specialist — if post-pandemic conditions will be first-time-buyer friendly, and whether a recovery will quickly shut down those opportunities.

Here’s what they said:

“The bottom is not falling out of the market, but it’s a better time for a first-time buyer probably than we’ve seen since 2009,” said Andrew Harrild of Condos.ca.

The year opened with bidding wars galore and homes commonly selling for 10 per cent over list price. Then in mid-March, when open houses were cancelled and condo buildings banned real estate showings, there were probably deals to be had amid the uncertainty.

But the market has since stabilized.

“You’re even starting to see offer dates creeping back in, which is certainly an indication people are feeling a bit more confident,” Harrild said.

“You’re not seeing massive discounts off the list price but you are seeing 98 per cent of list or $10,000 or $20,000 under asking,” he said.

The flip side is there isn’t much to see. Listings were down 64 per cent in April compared to the same month last year, with short supply putting upward pressure on prices and signs of pent-up demand.

“There’s a bit of confidence coming into the market,” he said.

If you are looking for a bargain you’ve got to drill down to individual neighbourhood and housing category, said Zoocasa CEO Lauren Haw.

She warned that sales statistics are skewed by the low number of sales and the mix of available properties on the market.

“Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, things are quite different,” she said.

There could be more choices for those in the market for a downtown condo. That’s where some short-term rentals have migrated to the long-term-rental and resale markets. But there are few detached houses available in good school districts.

“April-May is your crown month for family homes in good school districts and they’re not for sale right now. I continue to think when those houses hit the market we’re going to see prices rise,” Haw said.

There is some real estate excitement in the 905 communities around Toronto and that is extending to cities such as Hamilton, Peterborough, Barrie, London and Kitchener-Waterloo, markets that were thriving before the pandemic.

Now that many people don’t see themselves going back to work at the office full-time, Haw predicted those secondary cities will likely remain buoyant.

“If I am only going to commute three days a week, of course I’m going to buy a detached house in a great neighbourhood in Kitchener,” she said. But home buyers will continue to want walkable downtown lifestyles with restaurants and entertainment nearby.

Royal LePage CEO Phil Soper said there are bargains to be had with homes selling for less than they were in March. But, he said, “There is a risk premium for trading in any financial crisis and frankly it’s justified because there are so many unknowns.”

That benefit of a sale price that is 2 to 5 per cent lower looks more substantial when you consider prices had been expected to rise as much as 15 per cent this spring, he said.

Soper also warned that the window for those savings will close as the market returns to normal, and there are signs that is already happening, with traffic up 20 per cent year over year at the company’s listings website royallepage.ca and an uptick in virtual and guided showings.

“The longer you wait the less an opportunity there will be for a cheaper purchase,” he said.

“In any market correction, buyers are the earliest to react to a potential downturn and adjust their expectations lower as far as price goes. Sellers are the last in and the first out,” Soper said.

Their usual reaction is to take their house off the market or test the market to see if they can get what they want, not let the house go at a significant discount.

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“It appears that the 905 is doing better than the 416 during this recovery,” Soper said. “It may be a combination of lower average price and lower density — probably a citizenry that is somewhat less concerned about leaving their homes to transact, particularly in housing,” he said.

David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said he doubts few young adults 25 to 35 years are thinking about buying homes, with about 30 per cent having lost their jobs or the majority of their work hours since February.

“If you were in that age category and a third of your friends lost their jobs, you might be pretty reticent to take on a big mortgage because you might be next,” he said.

Several factors need to line up for buyers to take advantage of the recession, Macdonald said.

“You’ve got to be lucky enough to keep your job and we need to see big declines in house prices, which itself would be devastating to the economy because people would feel a lot poorer as a result of their houses being worth much less,” he said.

Macdonald said people who might have been saving for a house pre-COVID-19 are now likely more preoccupied with paying the rent.

“There may be people who benefit from this but in terms of allowing millennials en masse to buy single-detached homes in the GTA any time soon, I think that’s extraordinarily unlikely,” he said.

One sign the housing market could be quickly revived is that mortgage pre-approvals are beginning to pile up, said James Laird, president of CanWise Financial.

“It feels like just before the spring market right now where there is a few purchases happening but not many, but it does feel like people are readying themselves to possibly buy in the next couple of months,” he said.

While part-time and hourly workers have suffered disproportionate job losses during the COVID-19 crisis, only about 10 per cent of full-time workers have lost their jobs, Laird said.

“Typically it wouldn’t be the part-time, hourly person who is looking at entering the real estate market,” he said. “It’s more typically those with longer-term, stable employment, and that group has not been nearly as badly affected,” he said.

Conference Board of Canada senior economist Robin Wiebe said there are competing factors that could hasten or slow recovery. But on balance, he said, Toronto housing fundamentals can likely sustain a comeback.

“One of the things that might go against a quick rebound in the housing market is that consumers in general are carrying high debts. Even though rates are low they may not be prepared to jump into the housing market — that’s not just young people, that’s people of all ages,” Wiebe said.

But population is a big driver of housing demand and there are reasons to think Toronto has pent-up demand based on Conference Board estimates that the city added 128,000 people last year, on top of 125,000 in 2018. That’s the equivalent of two Census Metropolitan Areas (CMA) according to the Statistics Canada definition of 100,000 people, he said.

Until the shutdown Toronto also enjoyed “red hot” employment growth, rising over 4 per cent last year, and interest rates are low and expected to stay that way for some time.

That has contributed to pent-up demand and a short supply of housing. Wiebe cited Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) statistics showing there were 209 completed and unoccupied (ownership, not rental) apartments in the Toronto CMA in April. The 20-year average is 630.

Experts who spoke to the Star stressed there are still a lot of unknowns about the road to recovery.

What happens if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infection in the fall?

“A brief second wave I believe the market could manage, and people will treat it like the aftershock of an earthquake. An extended or more damaging second wave would mean all bets are off for the economy and the housing market,” Soper said.

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‘Devastating’ loss for Toronto’s LGBTQ community as Church St.’s Club 120 closes for good


It was a sanctuary for “extreme diversity,” a place to call home and a space where people of Toronto’s multi-faceted LGBTQ communities could let loose and be themselves for a few hours. Now, because of COVID-19, Club 120 is gone for good.

The Church St. nightclub and its sister live music and comedy venue, 120 Diner, announced recently that they won’t be opening again.

“We tried very hard to navigate the system and hang in there … but with the way the world is turning, there is no sane or rational way that we can keep this space alive,” co-owner Todd Klinck wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, where he noted that the businesses have monthly expenses of $90,000 when open at full tilt.

While their landlord offered them a part deferral of rent for April and May, they wouldn’t remove a clause in the lease saying Club 120 could be kicked out with nine months’ notice if the building’s owner wanted to tear it down and build condos.

“If we were going to go into debt even further, we would need to know that we weren’t reopening and then being given a nine-month eviction notice right away,” Klinck wrote.

In an interview with the Star, Klinck said it would have been a financial struggle even if the landlord had accepted his and co-owner Mandy Goodhandy’s proposal for rent reductions, given the unclear timelines for the reopening of restaurants, bars and clubs.

“Even if they’d accepted the proposal, it would have been difficult. We would have still had expenses, but no revenue. I’m a realist,” said Klinck, who says he bears no ill will to the Club 120 landlord.

“I know everyone assumes landlords can just absorb it, but they’ve got their own responsibilities, too,” Klinck said.

Still, the decision to close was a gut-wrenching one for Klinck and Goodhandy, who opened what was then called Goodhandy’s in 2006 as a dance and music space for Toronto’s transgender community. It soon became a favourite spot for what Klinck called the “extreme diversity” of Toronto’s various LGBTQ communities, including many who felt marginalized by mainstream queer culture in this city. In 2012, they changed the name to Club 120, and in 2014 added 120 Diner on the main floor as a live music and comedy venue.

“We started out primarily as a place for trans people, but we were open seven days a week, so pretty organically, we started opening up to other communities,” said Klinck, who noted the club’s nights catering to the South Asian LGBTQ community, Latino community, lesbian and sex-positive parties.

For many, it was a sanctuary where they could truly be themselves for a few hours at a time, Klinck said.

“Some of the people in the South Asian queer community are in arranged marriages. They can come here once a month and just be themselves,” Klinck said.

Mykel Hall, better known as DJ Blackcat, was a fixture at Club 120 from the beginning, spinning a wide variety of tunes that weren’t just tech-heavy dance music favoured by other dance spots in the Village.

The closure is an incalculable loss for Toronto, and for him personally, Blackcat said.

“Personally, I’m devastated. Todd and Mandy were like family. This was home,” Blackcat said.

What Club 120 represented wasn’t just another entertainment venue, but a haven of safety and identity for its diverse clientele, including the competitive voguing and ballroom scene made famous by the documentary “Paris is Burning.” Blackcat is one of the founders of the House of Monroe, Toronto’s first ballroom house, which called Club 120 home.

“They’ve done so much, not just for the ballroom culture, but for people of colour, sex-positive events. For everybody. It’s just such a unique, diverse place,” Blackcat said.

“As a black, gay man with Caribbean roots, I listened to soca, Indian and dance hall. At 120, I could play all of that. People could come to 120 and just be accepted.”

Maura Lawless, executive director of the 519 Community Centre, said COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on safe spaces for Toronto’s LGBTQ communities, and on the broader experience of life in this city. It also comes as many places in the Church-Wellesley Village have already been feeling the impact of gentrification and redevelopment, Lawless added.

“The loss of this kind of space will be devastating. Places like these give people a sense of safety in numbers, and are places where they can be themselves,” Lawless said. “There’s also the loss of social fabric and vibrancy that people associate with Toronto. This is changing the cultural life of our city.”

The loss of that cultural life is also having a major economic impact, Lawless said. While Club 120 is closer to Queen St. than Wellesley St., it’s still culturally part of the Village, which is undergoing a sea change, she added.

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“There are tourism implications, too. This is a queer-affirming street that brings people here from all over the world,” Lawless said.

The cultural losses are something most Torontonians are simply unaware of right now, as they deal with their own struggles during COVID-19, whether it’s staying in isolation at home or fighting the disease itself, Klinck said.

“I don’t think people realize how devastating COVID has been. And they won’t until it’s over and they realize, ‘Hey, that South Asian event isn’t happening,’ or ‘What, that Latin event isn’t happening? People just don’t have any idea of the level of destruction.”





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Cities around the world have seen air pollution plummet during COVID-19. Is this the beginning of Toronto’s green revolution?


There are no silver linings to a deadly pandemic, but it’s clear the earth has benefited from the human population’s restricted movement and economic activity.

Global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to drop by nearly six per cent this year due to COVID-19, according to the Center for International Climate Research and other climate researchers. It would be the largest year-over-year decline since the Second World War.

With fewer cars on the road and some factories closed, air pollution has been reduced around the world, from Los Angeles to New Delhi. Jellyfish have been spotted in Venice’s suddenly clear canals.

In Canada’s five largest cities, air pollution dropped by as much as 15 per cent in the second half of March, according to an analysis of provincial data by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Traffic volumes in Toronto, meanwhile, have been cut in half.

This is all temporary, of course. When lockdown measures are lifted, CO2 emissions will resume their pre-pandemic levels and the smog will return.

But climate scientists and activists hope this moment can be a turning point, when our efforts to combat one global crisis inspire action against another, and governments use their unprecedented spending on economic recovery to accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels and toward a green economy.

The federal government won’t have another opportunity to make the necessary investments to meet its climate goals, said Robin Edger, executive director and CEO of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“After this the cupboards are bare,” he said. “If we try to spend all this money on getting back to the past, I think they’ve kind of blown it in terms of decarbonizing the economy.”

Under the Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and is targeting net-zero emissions by 2050.

Even before the pandemic it was going to take a massive investment and radical change to meet these targets, Edger said. “We were already talking about a public mobilization along the lines of nothing we’d seen since the Second World War. So now we’ve had this economic collapse as a result of a health crisis and the government has a choice to make: Are we going to make investments in line with our country’s stated climate goals and set ourselves up for the future, or are we going to try to cling to the past and pour money into shovel-ready but unsustainable projects?”

Meanwhile, there is competing pressure to revive the economy as quickly as possible, suggesting investments in climate-change mitigation are luxuries we can’t afford given the dire economic situation. Canada’s oil and gas producers, already dealing with collapsing demand and record-low prices, are calling on the federal government to freeze the carbon tax and delay new climate-change regulations or risk losing the industry and thousands of jobs.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used the occasion of Earth Day earlier this week to draw a parallel between the global efforts to fight COVID-19 and climate change, calling the climate crisis an “even deeper emergency” and urging governments to target their economic recoveries toward a more sustainable future. “The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call,” he said. “We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.”

The federal government seems to be adopting that approach, given its decision last week to spend $1.7 billion to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., which will provide an estimated 5,200 jobs for laid-off workers. It also announced $750 million in aid to help fossil-fuel companies reduce methane emissions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far resisted a direct bailout to oil and gas companies.

The government initially focused its financial aid on emergency relief, but the oil well cleanups are an example of combining job creation with longer-term policy goals, said Michael Burt, executive director of the Conference Board of Canada. “The shift in thinking from short-term crisis management to recovery is an important one.”

But if the government wants to see a permanent drop in emissions, Burt said, there has to be a permanent change in how we produce and consume energy. “Without those fundamental changes this will be a temporary phenomenon for sure.”

Even if the estimated six per cent drop in emissions due to the pandemic was somehow sustained, it still wouldn’t be enough to limit global warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial averages, as called for in the Paris Agreement. Global emissions would need to fall by 7.6 per cent every year for a decade to meet that target, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

So dramatic change is required, and some experts think reframing climate change as a public health threat might help capitalize on the collectivist mindset of this current moment.

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“Climate change isn’t about saving the environment,” said Miriam Diamond, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Earth Sciences. “It’s about saving society.”

Diamond said she has been impressed with the “willingness” of Canadians to absorb and adopt information provided by public health experts. “The experts have prepped us as a population and we’ve risen to the challenge,” she said. “We can do the same thing with respect to climate change.”

As with combating COVID-19, fighting climate change requires us to accept that taking action today will have an impact in the future, she said. “But it’s an act of faith, and that act of faith is given to us by experts.”

Diamond said she is not necessarily optimistic this will be a turning point because governments around the world are “champing at the bit to get their economies going,” and that rush to return will mean bailouts for conventional industries that can put people back to work quickly. Diamond said that while she was happy the Canadian government didn’t simply bail out fossil-fuel companies, she said she wished the money was spent on innovation to change the country’s energy mix rather than simply cleanup. “Now is the time to press the reset button,” she said.

A view shows clear waters in Venice's Grand Canal on March 18, 2020.

As a city, Toronto met its 2020 target of reducing emissions by 30 per cent from 1990 levels and is on track to meet its 2030 target of a 65-per-cent reduction, according to the city’s latest greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

But the pandemic is also draining the city’s coffers and could cost $1.5 billion, according to an estimate released this week. That could limit its ability to invest in climate-change mitigation. Municipalities, unlike other levels of government, have fewer financial levers to pull and can’t go into debt.

That’s why cities like Toronto should be “in the ear of the federal government right now,” Edger said. “They should be arguing for the kinds of sustainable projects that will help you juice your economy and get money flowing and bring jobs to your region while creating more sustainable cities.”

Edgar said cities should be lobbying the federal government to invest in public transit and cycling infrastructure, building retrofits to reduce waste heat and electric-vehicle charging stations. He added that governments should consider whether a project is not simply “shovel ready” but “shovel worthy.”

Fifty-two per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heating homes and buildings, primarily from burning natural gas. Thirty-eight per cent of emissions come from transportation, and 80 per cent of those are from personal vehicles.

So any investments in transportation should be aimed at supporting electric vehicles or getting people out of their cars altogether. By 2050, the city wants three-quarters of all trips under five kilometres to be walked or cycled, and all vehicles to use low-carbon energy.

What remains to be seen is how other factors may influence emissions in the post-pandemic world. Will people be more reluctant to take public transit? Will cheap gas encourage more people to drive? Or perhaps a more permanent shift to working from home will lead to fewer people commuting altogether.

“It’s hard to say whether all of these things will net-out positive or negative,” said Burt, of the Conference Board. “There are a lot of things that could add to or take away from emissions in the coming months and years as a result of the fallout of COVID-19.”

Brendan Kennedy





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