Congress should wait to see whether more coronavirus action needed: McConnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said U.S. lawmakers should “wait and see” whether a fourth congressional effort was needed to respond to the nation’s coronavirus outbreak and its impact.

McConnell, speaking on syndicated Hugh Hewitt radio program, said policy makers should wait to see how the crisis unfolded before jumping on another bill. He also said the idea of pandemic-related U.S. Treasury bonds was interesting.

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Serbia’s coronavirus state of emergency measures draw eyes of human rights groups

Soldiers patrol the streets with their fingers on machine gun triggers. The army guards an exhibition center-turned-makeshift-hospital crowded with rows of metal beds for those infected with the coronavirus. And Serbia’s president warns residents that Belgrade’s graveyards won’t be big enough to bury the dead if people ignore his government’s lockdown orders.

Since President Aleksandar Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, parliament has been sidelined, borders shut, a 12-hour police-enforced curfew imposed and people over 65 banned from leaving their homes — some of Europe’s strictest measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Serbian leader, who makes dramatic daily appearances issuing new decrees, has assumed full power, prompting an outcry from opponents who say he has seized control of the state in an unconstitutional manner.

Rodoljub Sabic, a former state commissioner for personal data protection, says by proclaiming a state of emergency, Vucic has assumed “full supremacy” over decision-making during the crisis, although his constitutional role is only ceremonial.

“He issues orders which are automatically accepted by the government,” Sabic said. “No checks and balances.”

In ex-communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere, populist leaders are introducing harsh measures including uncontrolled cellphone surveillance of their citizens and lengthy jail sentences for those who flout lockdown decrees.

The human rights chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said while she understands the need to act swiftly to protect populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly declared states of emergency must include a time limit and parliamentary oversight.

“A state of emergency — wherever it is declared and for whatever reason — must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary,” said the OSCE rights chief, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.

In times of national emergency, countries often take steps that rights activists see as curtailing civil liberties, such as increased surveillance, curfews and restrictions on travel, or limiting freedom of expression. China locked down whole cities earlier this year to stop the spread of the virus as India did with the whole nation.

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Amnesty International researcher Massimo Moratti said states of emergency are allowed under international human rights law but warned that the restrictive measures should not become a “new normal.”

“Such states need to last only until the danger lasts,” he told The Associated Press.

In European Union-member Hungary, parliament on Monday passed a law giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government the right to rule by decree for as long as a state of emergency declared March 11 is in effect.

“This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary director.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said criticism of Hungary’s bill were “political attacks based on the wrong interpretation or intentional distortion” of its contents.

Other governments have also adopted extreme measures.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government passed a series of emergency executive measures to try to quell the spread of the new virus. These include authorizing unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and a slowdown of court activity that forced the postponement of Netanyahu’s own pending corruption trial.

In Russia, authorities have turned up the pressure on media outlets and social media users to control the narrative amid the country’s growing coronavirus outbreak. Moscow went on lockdown Monday and many other regions quickly followed suit.

Under the guise of weeding out coronavirus-related “fake news,” law enforcement has cracked down on people sharing opinions on social media, and on media that criticize the government’s response to the outbreak.

In Poland, people are worried about a new government smartphone application introduced for people in home quarantine.

Panoptykon Foundation, a human rights group that opposes surveillance, says some users who support government efforts to fight the pandemic worry that by using the app they could be giving too much private data to the conservative government.

While nearly 800 coronavirus cases and 16 deaths have been recorded in Serbia, according to Johns Hopkins University, testing has been extremely limited and experts believe the figures greatly under-represent the real number of victims. Most people suffer mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, from the virus but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, more severe illness can occur, including pneumonia and death.

Images of the transformation of a huge communist-era exhibition hall in Belgrade into a makeshift hospital for infected patients has triggered widespread public fear of the detention camp-looking facility that is filled with row-upon-row of 3,000 metal beds.

The Serbian president said he was glad that people got scared, adding he would have chosen even a worse-looking spot if that would stop Serbs from flouting his stay-at-home orders.

“Someone has to spend 14 to 28 days there,” Vucic said. “If it’s not comfortable, I don’t care. We are fighting for people’s lives.”

“Do not Drown Belgrade,” a group of civic activists, has launched an online petition against what they call Vucic’s abuse of power and curtailing of basic human rights. It says his frequent public appearances are creating panic in an already worried society.

“We do not need Vucic’s daily dramatization, but the truth: Concrete data and instructions from experts,” the petition says.


Associated Press writers Jovana Gec, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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COVID-19: 'Panic' among India health workers over PPE shortages

Frontline healthcare professionals fighting COVID-19 face shortages of personal protective equipment as cases rise.

Early in March, a 37-year-old lab technician at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (MGIMS) in the western state of Maharashtra got sick at a time when the coronavirus pandemic was still not high on the Indian government’s agenda.

“He had pneumonia in both his lungs and his condition was severe enough to be put in the intensive care unit (ICU),” Dr SP Kalantri, the director professor of medicine at MGIMS, told Al Jazeera.


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The lab technician’s breathing was assisted by mechanical ventilation.

“Our nurses are trained to take care of such patients day in and day out – it wasn’t something new,” said Kalantri, who is also the medical superintendent of the MGIMS-run Kasturba Hospital. 

“But there was a diagnostic possibility that he had COVID-19.” 

The entire MGIMS staff was nervous when they sent a sample to a regional lab in Nagpur city for testing. They were worried that if it turned out to be a COVID-19 infection, others could have been infected, and in turn, infected their families.

The staff of another hospital in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra and the country’s financial hub, had already been quarantined after a patient tested positive. So when the test came back negative, everyone at MGIMS breathed a sigh of relief.

A sense of alarm

There is a sense of alarm among healthcare professionals across India as the country hunkers down in wait for what many believe will be a tsunami of coronavirus cases.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation last Tuesday, announcing a countrywide lockdown for 21 days.

“It is going to help stop the spread of the virus to an extent, but it is also a time for the healthcare infrastructure to prepare itself,” Dr Yogesh Jain, a doctor who works in Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh state, told Al Jazeera.

Jain, like most medical professionals, is deeply concerned over shortages of protective health supplies, such as masks, gloves and coveralls, known as personal protective equipment (PPE).

“The prime minister said nothing about that,” he said.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the government was planning to procure more PPE domestically and was also exploring imports from South Korea and China.

In Chhattisgarh, six cases have so far tested positive for COVID-19, one in the district where Jain works as a doctor. But the low number of recorded cases across the country might be a result of the government’s strict guidelines on who can be tested. 

“Apart from those six reported cases, we have many patients who are showing symptoms of COVID-19,” said Jain, who has no coveralls or disposable 3-ply face masks, fewer than a dozen N-95 masks and just a few sets of gloves at his hospital.

‘They think about their spouses and kids’

Minutes before talking to Al Jazeera, Jain was attempting to get a patient with COVID-19-like symptoms transported to the government medical college to Bilaspur town for a test.

The ambulance driver showed up with no protective gear. Jain wanted to give him coveralls and a mask but was unable to, since he did not have enough for himself. 

“If I can’t even make sure of the safety of the health workers, how can I ask them to do their work?” he asked.

Kalantri from MGIMS said anxiety was pervasive among his staff. “The doctors are also human beings. They read about death of healthcare workers in China or Italy or UK, and fear starts making a way into their consciousness. They think about their spouse and kids at home.”

Experts are blaming the current shortage of PPE on government mismanagement.

The minutes of a meeting, which Al Jazeera has seen, held by the Ministry of Textiles on March 18 noted that the Health Ministry would require more than 700,000 protective coveralls, six million N-95 masks and 10 million 3-ply masks until the end of May.

The estimates are wildly conservative in the eyes of industry watchdogs. According to the All India Drug Action Network, the need for coveralls, for instance, could rise to 500,000 per day.  In the same meeting, the ministry also noted “there is a shortage of material and the rate of supply is not meeting the rising demand”.

The government had also not paid attention to World Health Organization (WHO) warnings about impending global shortages of PPE on February 27, and called on industries to ramp up production by just 40 percent.

Towards the end of January, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a notification banning the export of all PPE. But that order was amended a week later, on February 8, to allow the export of surgical masks and gloves. 

It was only on March 19 that the government banned the export of raw materials used to manufacture PPE. 

Despite repeated attempts Al Jazeera could not reach Lav Agarwal, the spokesman of the ministry of health. Questions were also sent via email, sms, WhatsApp but did not receive reply until the time of the publication of the article.

A human tragedy

“Indian manufacturers were urging the government to stock up materials since early February, and to impose anti-profiteering measures. Yet the by the time an order was received, the price of the components required to make ply masks had gone up “from 250 per kg to 3,000 per kg,” Sanjiiiv Relhan, the chairman of the Preventive Wear Manufacturer Association of India, told local media.

Meanwhile, PPE shortages are forcing some doctors to use raincoats and motorbike helmets, according to a Reuters report on Tuesday.

The shortages come amid a humanitarian crisis over the government lockdown, with tens of thousands of migrant workers fleeing cities to reach their homes in rural areas. This mass exodus of people risks  infections spreading from cities to rural areas, which could prove catastrophic for the country of 1.3 billion people. While the number of reported cases has crossed 1,200 with 32 deaths, many believe India’s low testing rate makes those statistics meaningless.

Jain says he expects the cost of the delays will be borne by healthcare professionals.  

“It is going to be mayhem,” he said. 

“I think that even the healthcare professionals who are committed to work, out of fear of the pandemic and for their own lives, might desert the frontlines.”

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Coronavirus: Barcelona players agree 70 percent pay cut

Barcelona’s professional athletes, including footballers, agree to wage cut to pay for non-sporting staff’s salaries.

Barcelona football club’s players will take a 70 percent pay cut and make an extra contribution on top during the enforced La Liga break so that the club’s other employees can earn their full salaries during the coronavirus crisis, captain Lionel Messi said.

In addition to the football players, Barcelona’s professional athletes also agreed to the pay cut in order to pay salaries of non-sporting staff amid the financial impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak.


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“As well as the 70% reduction in our salaries during the national state of emergency, we will make a contribution so that the club’s employees can earn 100% of their salaries during this time,” Messi said on his Instagram account.

Reacting to criticism that the players had not made any announcements about what they were doing to help others during the pandemic, Messi added: “We haven’t spoken until now because our priority was to find real solutions in order to help the club and those who will be most affected by this situation.

“We also could not forget to send all our best wishes to all Barcelona fans who are suffering in these tough times and everyone who is waiting patiently in their home waiting for the end of this crisis.”

So far 7,340 people have died from the virus in Spain. The country is into the third week of a lockdown while all organised football has been postponed indefinitely.

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World stocks rally after Chinese data boost to close worst quarter since 2008

LONDON (Reuters) – World stocks looked set to close their worst quarter since 2008 on a brighter note on Tuesday, as strong Chinese factory data held out hope for an economic revival even as much of the rest of the world shut down to fight the coronavirus.

Stocks have rallied since the start of last week but remain down more than 20% for the quarter. European shares have had an even worst time, suffering their worst three months since 1987.

But with trillions wiped off global markets in March and policymakers responding with more than $10 trillion and counting of fiscal and monetary stimulus packages, a semblance of calm has returned this week.

Some analysts have been bold enough to call a bottom in stocks and say the lows of early last week are unlikely to be revisited.

European stocks rallied at the open. The Euro STOXX .STOXXE gained 1.7%, France’s CAC 40 .FCHI 1.15% and the German DAX GDAX 2.08%. Britain’s FTSE 100 .FTSE rose 1.8%.

That followed gains in Asia after China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) rose to 52.0 in March from a record-low 35.7 in February, topping forecasts of 45.0.

Analysts cautioned that underlying activity probably remained below par, since the improvement measured the net balance of companies reporting an expansion or contraction, but markets cheered the news.

S&P 500 futures rose 0.6% ESc1, pointing to a stronger open on Wall Street after a rally on Monday lifted the U.S. index towards a 20% gain since the lows of last week.

Despite the more positive mood, not everyone is convinced the current rally has legs.

“In spite of the significant sell-off of most growth-oriented assets since mid-February, we are concerned there is further downside ahead,” said Salman Baig, an investment manager at Unigestion.

“The violent market action should not be understated, but the underlying cause – an accelerating pandemic requiring large parts of the economy to shut down – is still with us.”

The pace of coronavirus infections globally was heading towards 800,000. But Deutsche Bank analysts noted that for two consecutive days the global growth in new cases was 10%, after being well above that for most of the past two weeks.

Health officials are much more cautious. A World Health Organization official warned on Tuesday that even in the Asia-Pacific region the epidemic was “far from over”.

“This is probably the most embarrassing statistic for the West that China could possibly release. Not only did China stop the virus with just 3,309 deaths, they also appear to have done it with just a one-month shutdown of the economy,” Charlie Robertson, the chief economist at Renaissance Capital, said on Twitter.

Some analysts dispute China’s figures, however.


Elsewhere, oil prices rose off the 18-year lows hit on Monday after the United States and Russia agreed to talks to stabilize energy markets.

Oil prices have been hit by a double whammy, with U.S. crude at one point falling below $20 a barrel on Monday, as the virus outbreak cut demand worldwide and Saudi Arabia got into a price war with Russia.

Brent crude LCOc1 was up 43 cents, or 1.9%, at $23.19 a barrel, after closing on Monday at $22.76, its lowest finish since November 2002. nL4N2BO131

U.S. crude Clc1 was up $1.21, or 6.0%, at $21.30 a barrel, after settling in the earlier session at $20.09, its lowest since February 2002.

The dollar rose for a second day, although the gains were more controlled than the jumps of earlier this month that put severe stress on funding markets for the U.S. currency.

The dollar, measured against a basket of currencies, was up 0.3% at 99.493 =USD.

The euro dropped 0.4% to $1.0995 EUR=EBS. Sterling slipped 0.7% to $1.2330 GBP=D3. The yen was 0.5% lower against the dollar JPY=EBS.

Analysts say investors rebalancing their portfolios at month-end and quarter-end were probably behind some of the dollar’s moves over the next 24 hours.

There was little respite for emerging-market currencies, however. The South African rand ZAR= was near record lows and Latin American currencies were falling once again.  

Bond market moves were more measured than in recent weeks. Italian government bond yields IT10YT=RR were steady before an auction of debt, amid hopes the country’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus may be starting to work.

German benchmark 10-year yields rose 5 basis points to -0.474% DE10YT=RR. U.S. Treasury yields gained 2 to 4 bps, as investors sold safer bonds and bought into equities.  

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China factory activity unexpectedly expands, but economy cannot shake off virus shock

BEIJING (Reuters) – Factory activity in China unexpectedly expanded in March from a collapse the month before, but analysts caution that a durable near-term recovery is far from assured as the global coronavirus crisis knocks foreign demand and threatens a steep economic slump.

China’s official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) rose to 52 in March from a plunge to a record low of 35.7 in February, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Tuesday, above the 50-point mark that separates monthly growth from contraction.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected the March PMI to come in at 45.0.

The NBS attributed the surprise rebound in PMI to its record low base in February and cautioned that the readings do not signal a stabilization in economic activity.

That view was echoed by many analysts, who warn of a further period of struggle for China’s businesses and the broader economy due to the rapid spread of the virus across the world, the unprecedented lockdowns in several countries and the almost near certainty of a global recession.

“This does not mean that output is now back to its pre-virus trend. Instead, it simply suggests that economic activity improved modestly relative to February’s dismal showing, but remains well below pre-virus levels,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, in a note to clients.

The pandemic’s sweeping impact on production was underlined in two of Asia’s main export engines, Japan and South Korea. In Japan, industrial out rose at a slower pace in February and factories expect a plunge this month, while production in South Korea contracted the most in 11 years.

Economists are already forecasting a steep contraction in China’s first quarter gross domestic product, with some expecting a year-year slump of 9% or more – the first such contraction in three decades.

Nie Wen, economist at Shanghai-based Hwabao Trust, said given weak export orders, rising stockpile and soft prices, the underlying issue facing Chinese manufacturers has shifted to a lack of market demand, from production shutdowns forced by Chinese authorities.

The survey’s sub-index of manufacturing production picked up to 54.1 in March from February’s 27.8, but new export orders received by Chinese manufacturers were still mired in contraction, after ticking up to 46.4 from 28.7 in February.

Manufacturers are still facing big operational pressures, the survey showed, with over half of the respondents reporting a lack of market demand and 42% reporting financing issues, both up from the previous month.

“The biggest problem facing China’s economy in the second quarter is the slumping foreign demand,” said Nie, adding that authorities may roll out more policies on top of the billions of dollars pumped into the financial system since February to boost domestic consumption and tide over the shrinking overseas demand.

Markets reacted positively to the PMI survey, with Asian stock rising as investors seemed relieved by the rare good news as the pandemic showed few signs of abating.

China’s yuan, however, barely budged, reflecting analysts’ views that a sustainable bounce in manufacturing looked some way off despite a slowdown in China’s coronavirus infections from its peak in February.


Beijing, at great costs to the economy, had imposed draconian quarantine rules and travel restrictions to curb the pandemic that has killed more than 3,000 in the country.

While life for millions of people has started to slowly return to normal, the pace of business resumptions has been constrained by China’s efforts to guard against a second wave of infections from abroad.

The coronavirus, which originated late last year in China, has wreaked havoc along global supply chains and severely hurt foreign demand amid tight lockdowns in Europe, the United States and a number of other key economies where daily life has ground to a halt.

Already, Chinese exporters are seeing overseas orders being scrapped as the worldwide spike in coronavirus infections and deaths has forced many of the nation’s trading partners to slow or suspend production. Globally the outbreak has claimed the lives of over 37,000 people with more than 770,000 infections.

China should not set an economic growth target this year given the heightened uncertainty and avoid having to resort to “flood-like stimulus” to meet the goal, a central bank adviser said.

The service sector, which accounts for 60% of China’s GDP, also saw an expansion in activity, with the official non-manufacturing PMI rising to 52.3 from 29.6 in February, a separate NBS survey showed.

Analysts warn the outbreak could have a lingering impact despite the government loosening restrictions in recent weeks, as many people remain worried about the possibility of new infections or fretting about job security and potential cuts to wages as the economy struggles.

China’s urban jobless rate hit 6.2% in February, up one percentage point from the end of 2019, with analysts estimating about 5 million jobs lost in January-February period.

“The situation remains volatile as the trajectory of the COVID-19 virus outbreak in several key economies is still unpredictable,” ANZ analysts said in a note.

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U.S. airlines must suggest possible compensation for cash grants: Treasury

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Airlines must suggest possible compensation in return for government cash assistance and agree to conditions that include not cutting pay or laying off employees through Sept. 30, the U.S. Treasury Department said in guidelines issued on Monday as it prepares to quickly hand out $25 billion.

Congress approved legislation last week authorizing the $25 billion for passenger airlines, as well as $4 billion for cargo carriers and $3 billion in cash for airport contractors like caterers and airplane cleaners.

Under the law, Treasury is supposed to make initial payments of the grants designed to cover payroll costs by next week.

The companies “must identify financial instruments” that would “provide appropriate compensation,” the guidelines said, adding that these could include warrants, options, preferred stock, debt securities or notes.

The department told applicants to apply by April 3 at 5 p.m. to receive funds as soon as possible. Applications received after April 27 may not be considered.

Other conditions for the cash assistance include limits on executive compensation through March 2022 and no stock buybacks or dividend payments through September 2021.

Airlines may also apply for a separate $29 billion in government loans. Separate Treasury guidelines released Monday for loans said carriers must provide financial instruments “for the benefit of taxpayers, in equity appreciation or a reasonable interest rate premium.” Companies critical to U.S. national security can seek loans from a separate $17 billion fund.

Those seeking loans must describe losses they have “incurred or will incur as a result of coronavirus” and detail the cause of the loss such as reduced demand, unavailability of credit or unbudgeted medical expenses.

The Treasury Department said in reviewing applications for the cash assistance it will consider the “adequacy of the proposed financial instruments for providing compensation to the Federal Government.”

It also said it “may refuse to provide payroll support payments to applicants that have taken, or are currently evaluating, any action to commence a bankruptcy.”

Major U.S. airlines on Saturday asked the Treasury department to move quickly to release funds. They have cut tens of thousands of flights as travel demand collapses amid the coronavirus pandemic and warned that without cash they would need to quickly begin massive furloughs.

The chief executives of American Airlines (AAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), United Airlines (UAL.O), Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) and others wrote in a letter that “given the urgent and immediate need, it is essential that these funds be disbursed as soon as possible.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday taxpayers will be “compensated” for providing emergency assistance to air carriers.

American Airlines said Monday it will be allocated about $12 billion of the combined cash assistance and government loans. It has said it expects that Treasury will not seek “onerous” conditions.

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Person in potentially life-threatening condition after landlord-tenant dispute sparks Calgary collision

A person was taken to hospital in potentially life-threatening condition after a collision in northwest Calgary on Monday.

Police said it started as a landlord-tenant dispute near Panamount Grove N.W. at around 4:30 p.m.

In the process, someone was hit by a vehicle, police said.

Officers are investigating the circumstances that led to the collision.

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Edmonton students resume classes, but not at schools

Monday marked the first day back to school for many Edmonton students following the spring break that wasn’t.

Outside closed Edmonton and area schools, there were no students in sight and all that was present was simply an eerie silence.

Students are back to learning, however, they are simply doing so virtually — and from home — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mother of three Michelle Henderson is balancing working from home while helping her kids continue their education. She said her kids’ teachers are helping.

“They were so excited to see their teachers on video,” Henderson said.

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Tim Cusack, the assistant superintendent of learning services innovation for Edmonton Catholic Schools, said the school board is treating this week like the start of a new school year.

“For all of us, it very much is a pivot from what we’ve come to know and love of our traditional school climate to more of a remote learning stance,” Cusack said.

“Having a routine at home is comforting for children. That’s why communication is really key… kind of that first day back reconnect: ‘How was your spring break? Here’s where we are.’”

Both the Edmonton Public and Catholic school divisions are working to help provide families with the tools to learn from home.

Janice Aubry, Edmonton Public Schools’ director of curriculum and resource supports, said the situation varies per family in terms of what’s needed at home.

Teachers are finessing or learning new online skill-sets to deliver the courses and projects.

“I’ve spoken to a lot teachers who are really excited and ready to go ahead with this new environment, and it’s a new area to learn and to grow in,” Aubry said. “I think when we all emerge from this, our students and our families and our teachers will probably be looking at teaching and learning with new eyes.”

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Calgary’s Heritage Park lays off staff to reduce costs during COVID-19 outbreak

One of Calgary’s most popular tourist attractions has announced staff layoffs related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Heritage Park said on Monday that management had come up with a plan to reduce costs, which includes temporarily laying off employees and mandated vacation time.

A spokesperson said minimal staff are working every day to ensure the animals, exhibits and artifacts are looked after and protected.

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“Our goal is to be open and welcoming guests back as soon as circumstances allow,” said Scott Matheson, director of marketing and communications at Heritage Park.

Heritage Park remains closed to the public, and the cancellation of private and ticketed events will continue until further notice.

Matheson said Heritage Park has a core staff of about 200 year-round employees working in a variety of part-time and full-time roles. Additional staff are hired during the Christmas season, and there are more than 500 seasonal employees during the summer to support the historical living village.

The attraction announced its decision to temporarily close on March 16.

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