Canada ramps up battle against virus, slashes rates and promises stimulus

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian authorities on Friday ramped up measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak and announced emergency measures, including a surprise half-point interest rate cut, to take the edge off the economic impact.

Ottawa advised citizens against non-essential foreign travel, moved to funnel international flights into a few select airports, and banned cruise ships carrying more than 500 people from ports until the end of June.

Legislators also suspended the House of Commons, but not before ramming through the ratification of a new North American trade pact, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. Quebec canceled school for two weeks starting Monday and Manitoba for three weeks starting March 23.

The Bank of Canada slashed its overnight rate for the second time in nine days and at the same time the government said it would offer C$10 billion ($7.2 billion) in credit support to businesses. Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and Finance Minister Bill Morneau held an unprecedented joint news conference to announce the moves.

“We seem to be approaching a different phase right now” in the spread of the virus, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for coronavirus.

In an outdoor news conference held in front of his Ottawa residence where he will spend the next two weeks working, Trudeau promised financial aid for Canadians.

“We do not want any Canadian to have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to pay their rent, whether or not they’re going to be able to buy groceries, or care for their kids or elderly family members,” Trudeau said.

“The government of Canada will be introducing a significant fiscal stimulus package in the days ahead.”

Canada reported 157 cases of the virus, up from 138 on Thursday, with one death. Seven of Canada’s 10 provinces have recorded infections of the respiratory illness.

Canada’s chief medical officer urged citizens to avoid all non-essential travel abroad and said travelers returning home should consider self-isolation, even if they are not coming from one of the hot spots.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable

“This is a serious public health threat, as well as a crisis,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters.

All national museums are closing on Saturday until further notice, and federal department heads in the public administration have been told to be as flexible as possible in allowing people to work from home.

The new budget, which was supposed to be presented on March 30, will be delayed and no new date has yet been set. However, Morneau said he would present a stimulus package next week.

“These are extraordinary times and that means we are ready to take extraordinary measures,” said Morneau. “We are going to do whatever it takes to protect Canadians and keep our economy strong.”

Trudeau’s government is mulling a multibillion-dollar package for industries most hit by the outbreak, including airlines, a source directly familiar with the matter told Reuters. It would allow provinces to take action to support families, workers and employers, said the source said, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.

Trudeau announced on Thursday that he would be in isolation for as much as two weeks after his wife, Sophie, became infected with the virus.

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Trudeau said he was feeling well, and Sophie was “doing fine.”

“She’s basically got mild, flu-like symptoms. She’s getting lots of rest, drinking lots of fluids,” he said, adding that his three kids are at home and playing with Legos.

Reporting by Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren; additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa and Denny Thomas in Toronto; editing by Jonathan Oatis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Berkrot, David Gregorio and Diane Craft

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