Coping with COVID-19: Behind the headlines

Editor's Note

In order to keep Ottawa business leaders informed in this unprecedented health and economic crisis, OBJ publisher Michael Curran is conducting a series of video panel discussions over the coming weeks with members of Ottawa's business community.

In this Coping With COVID-19 podcast episode, OBJ publisher Michael Curran speaks with OBJ editors David Sali and Peter Kovessy about some of the week’s biggest stories and how Ottawa’s business community is adapting to the ongoing economic challenges.

This is an edited transcript of the panel discussion. To hear the full interview, please watch the video above.

CURRAN: We received new unemployment stats today. Peter, can you give us an update on what the employment situation is looking like in Ottawa?

KOVESSY: Our unemployment rate rose to 6.9 per cent (in April). Just to put that into a little bit of context, at the beginning of the year, when our economy was firing on all cylinders, the unemployment rate was down to 4.3 per cent. What I found most interesting is that even though what’s happening overall is unprecedented, by historic levels, we only have to go back four years – back when the federal government was (coming out) of its belt-tightening mode – to see the unemployment rate where it is today. The National Capital Region is still in better shape than other parts of the country, but I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of all the business closures and layoffs show up in these stats.

CURRAN: Shifting gears, Shopify is often thought of as the flagship company in Ottawa’s tech sector. They released their quarterly earnings this week. Dave, give us an update.

SALI: Things are looking really good for Shopify. They cracked a milestone – their shares went over $1,000 for the first time and, briefly, Shopify was the country’s most valuable company, inching past RBC. This pandemic is forcing all kinds of merchants to rethink how they sell things. You’re seeing that in new accounts on the Shopify platform, which grew 62 per cent between March 30 and April 24 compared to the previous six-week period. They’re seeing the shift to online commerce accelerate and they are really poised to capitalize on that.

CURRAN: Moving to the physical world of commerce, OBJ had an interesting story about the post-pandemic future for local shopping malls.

KOVESSY: We got a picture of how the landlords behind major malls across Canada are faring. At regional malls – places like the Rideau Centre, Bayshore and St. Laurent – across the country, landlords are reporting that only 20 to 25 per cent of tenants have paid their rent. At community malls, the number climbs to 50 per cent. We spoke to a couple of retail analysts who emphasized that as we start to pull out of the COVID-19 pandemic, mall owners will need to reinvent their offerings with things like concerts and new attractions that make people excited – and comfortable – with going to shopping malls again.

CURRAN: Let’s pivot to the tourism industry. Dave, you had some news on the Chateau Laurier this week.

SALI: They’ve chosen a fitting day to come back – they’re reopening on Canada Day. Reopening in the COVID era doesn’t come without its challenges. The hotel’s management is going to be devoted to ensuring the property is safe. This includes things like stepping up overall cleaning and reconfiguring furniture in the lobby to make sure there is adequate physical distancing. In rooms, frequently touched items like coffee makers will be taken out of the suites.