Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
COVID-19 outbreaks at two of Canada’s largest slaughterhouses have focused attention on working conditions in the meat industry, the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers, and the potential impact of the pandemic on Canada’s food supply.
Roughly 500 workers have been infected at a Cargill Ltd. facility in High River, Alta., and a JBS Canada plant in Brooks, Alta. Health officials say the outbreaks are also linked to cases in the community, largely through household members also becoming infected. One worker has died.
The outbreaks are already having a significant effect on meat production. Cargill has temporarily shut down its High River facility, while JBS has scaled back work. Together, the facilities represent more than half of the beef processed in Canada.
The federal government and retailers insist the domestic beef supply chain is secure, but it’s not clear how long the production outages will last and whether similar facilities will be forced to follow suit.
Grocery stores and restaurants say they will be able to meet demand by drawing on the beef already in the supply chain and finding alternative suppliers.
High River in particular has become a hot spot in Alberta. Foothills County, which includes High River, now has more cases than Edmonton, a city with more than 10 times the population. The outbreak at the plant is a factor in Calgary’s already high rate of infections, and some of the meat plant workers live with healthcare workers, which has made the problem even worse.
Alberta’s medical officer has also pointed to large households as a particular concern. Many of the employees are temporary foreign workers and immigrants tied to the city’s Filipino community, and a local settlement agency has noted that temporary foreign workers in particular often share accommodations to cut down on costs.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw says the large number of workers at the plants – there are 2,000 at Cargill alone – increases the risk of infection.
As the full impact of the outbreaks becomes clearer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the industry will focus on supplying the domestic market. Canada, he says, will be a priority.
“So we are not at this point anticipating shortages of beef, but prices might go up."
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
Around the West:
OIL STORAGE: As an oil-price plunge deepens as markets react to uncertainty about when economies will restart, the Alberta government is considering a plan to establish strategic storage reserves for crude in the years ahead. The province’s geological formations could play a role. The ATCO Group says it’s exploring whether salt caverns in the Edmonton area could be used by governments for up to 10 million barrels of subterranean space. They would take 2-3 years to drill and clean, but would be available in future should there be more massive swings in demand for crude. The dearth of storage space in North America, coupled with obliterated demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, saw U.S. crude oil futures collapse into negative territory for the first time in history Monday, as desperate traders paid to get rid of barrels. The industry is scrambling to find ways to store product until a functioning economy, and oil demand, returns.
CIVIC DEFICITS: The Alberta government says it is “seriously considering” whether to allow cities more leeway in how they handle cash-flow deficits this year, as mayors and councils across the country struggle with collapsing revenues for transit, parking, building fees and possibly property taxes because of the pandemic. However, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, like others, said the plan will not help cities solve the serious crisis ahead. Mayors are calling for direct cash infusions from other levels of government.
TRANSLINK CUTS STAFF: Vancouver’s transit agency has become the first large system in Canada to lay off hundreds of workers, announcing Monday that it is furloughing almost 1,500 bus drivers, mechanics and others. TransLink’s bus service will be down to 20 per cent of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of May, while its two rapid-transit lines will be down to 40 per cent each, with cuts as well to the SeaBus and West Coast Express train. TransLink chief executive officer Kevin Desmond said the agency had no choice after ridership on the system plunged to 75,000 a day from the typical 500,000, and no other governments have offered any immediate help to keep things going.
INTERPROVINCIAL TRAVEL: Alberta Transportation data show that, as of April 5, traffic across the B.C.-Alberta boundary dropped by 35 per cent since physical-distancing recommendations were introduced in March. Neither B.C. nor Alberta have data for the Easter long weekend, but local governments reported steep declines in travel. There were exceptions, with the mayor of Osoyoos, B.C., saying that while it had been quiet for weeks, Easter was busy. In Banff, Alta., about 3,000 vehicles travelled into town during the long weekend and only 6 per cent of them identified as visitors; the rest were residents, workers providing essential services, or people stopping for supplies before continuing on the Trans-Canada Highway. That’s a considerable decline from last year, when 40,000 vehicles drove into town on the four-day Easter weekend.
REOPENING RESTAURANTS: B.C.'s chief medical officer is looking at how the province’s restaurant industry could reopen while keeping staff and diners safe. Dr. Bonnie Henry made it clear that life for the industry won’t return to normal for months. “I think there are lots of innovative ways that we can have in-restaurant dining that protects both the staff, as well as people who are coming in. And I am looking to industry to come up with those ideas of how this could work,” she said. Dr. Henry made her comments as the province is considering options for easing the restrictions that aim to combat the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
B.C. TESTING: British Columbia has significantly expanded availability of its COVID-19 testing as part of a strategy to move beyond the current lockdown measures, but the number of tests conducted each day is still well below the province’s capacity. B.C. is lagging behind most other provinces in the number of tests conducted, on a per-capita basis. The province has the capacity to conduct 6,200 tests each day.
TESTING SUCCESS: When researchers in China identified the source of illness as a new coronavirus, Alberta’s public health lab researchers started retooling existing tests for existing coronaviruses to create a potential test. At the same time, staff within Alberta Health Services’ procurement department set to work putting in large orders for supplies, including swabs, a testing component called reagent and other supplies that would be essential to ramp up capacity, which is now at about 7,000 tests a day. The result has been arguably the most successful COVID-19 testing system in the country.
PPE SUPPLY: B.C. hospitals – like hospitals around the globe – have been rationing personal protective equipment for weeks. But it turns out the supply chains are not broken, if you have the right connections. The provincial government has turned to the private sector for donations to help restock what it has been slow to secure on its own. Forestry and mining companies, for example, have long-standing relationships with Chinese manufacturers of protective gear necessary for their operations. Teck Resources is one of more than 100 donors that have stepped up. Using its own network, the international mining company secured one million respirator masks that are expected to arrive in the province in the coming weeks.
HEILTSUK NATION: In March, Heiltsuk Nation made the decision to cancel its roe-on-kelp fishery harvest, which affected about 700 of the Nation’s members. The work usually takes place in March or April, depending on when the fish arrive. The projected loss from cancelling the season is $6.3-million, the Heiltsuk Nation says, along with about $250,000 in salaries for 40 plant workers.
FILM AND TV: Research prepared for the Canadian Media Producers Association says up to 81,000 cast and crew have been affected since film and TV production ended in Canada in March, and face the prospect of permanent job losses if there’s no restart by June. David Shepheard, the Vancouver film commissioner, said he expects that, given a green light, the film industry will rebound more quickly than other sectors because it will not take long to rebuild its infrastructure. Citing TV sets, for example, he said they are waiting for production to resume.
Kevin Krausert on the federal government’s oil-and-gas sector plans: “Together, these represent a good start – an important first step in putting affected workers in the sector back to work, reducing Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions and providing much-needed financial support for energy firms to survive COVID-19 to build a new energy future. But there is much more to be done.”
Brianna Sharpe on helping Alberta’s front-line workers: “From the 2013 floods to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, Albertans have always been quick to praise first responders as heroic. Being so close to this disaster’s epicentre, healthcare workers also wear that mantle now. But this disaster will be different from those geophysical events; the pace seems relentless, the course unpredictable, the end uncertain. It’s hard for healthcare workers to feel empowered when they are surrounded by question marks, not even sure how to protect their own families.”