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Ravaged by the coronavirus, Italy tiptoes shakily toward reopening economy – NBC News

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ROME — After five weeks under a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, Cristiano Barberi’s children’s clothing store was among the few Roman shops allowed to reopen last week. But what may have looked like much-needed relief brought more financial punishment.

“It’s only for surviving,” said Barberi, wearing a mask and rubber gloves outside his family-owned boutique in one of Rome’s most fashionable neighborhoods, adding that he was opening to show “the people a new way, a new day.”

Almost a century old, his I Vippini Roma children’s clothing shop sells mostly handmade outfits. It had only a few customers on the day it reopened, and only one made a purchase.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Barberi’s tiny store and its customers are at the tip of the spear of Italy’s delicate economic reopening, one that will be watched by the rest of the world as policymakers try to prevent the pandemic from becoming an economic catastrophe.

Cristiano Barberi’s clothing store for children in Rome was among the few shops allowed to reopen.Bill O’Reilly / NBC News

Politicians, as well as medical and economic experts, warn that Italy may not make a convincing model for other countries — its death toll remains the highest in Europe, at 24,114, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some complain that Italy’s planning for its “phase two” of the outbreak is still too little, too late.

“Come on, you need to have a plan,” said Alessandro Vespignani, an Italian American physicist and expert on mathematical epidemiology at Northeastern University in Boston. “This is like everyone is talking about D-Day but they don’t know if they have ships, soldiers or support. But all everyone is talking about is when is [the date] of D-Day.”

Around two weeks before Italy is scheduled to reopen for business on May 3, an advisory task force of scientists, business and economy experts appointed by the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has yet to roll out a comprehensive plan to put Italians safely back to work. On Tuesday, Conte said that he was “confident” that he would be able to announce a plan for reopening the country by the end of this week.

The government describes this phase as the one in which Italians find a way to live with the virus — allowing people to return to work and use public transportation while still practicing social distancing, tracking personal associations and strengthening the health system to prepare for fresh outbreaks.

In Italy, as elsewhere, medical caution is colliding with hard economic realities. The heavily indebted country ranked among the least financially solvent in Western Europe even before the crisis, and recent estimates from the International Monetary Fund see Italy’s economy contracting by more than 9 percent by the end of the year — the worst projection in Europe.

Even after Silvio Brusaferro, president of Italy’s National Health Institute, said last week that the “contagion curve is dipping,” the government is debating whether to extend the lockdown past May 3 over concerns of a viral rebound.

A person sits next to a bike at Gianicolo Hill in Rome on Sunday.Alberto Lingria / Reuters

The debate over Italy’s reopening has played out across familiar fault lines, pitting big business and industry against labor unions and the wealthy north against the much poorer south.

The government is tentatively planning to slowly reopen the economy in three stages across the north — by far the worst afflicted by the virus — the center and south of the country, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

Which businesses open first and how has become a central sticking point in the debate.

Children’s clothing stores like Barberi’s were allowed to open last week, along with bookstores, stationery stores and logging activities — counterintuitive categories that labor and industry leaders said were meant to prevent swarms of new customers.

“I think it’s because children grow up,” Barberi said about why his store was allowed to open so early. “If there was someone that was born in December or January, they finished their little dress.”

Barberi’s shop is among the 95 percent of Italian businesses that employ fewer than 10 employees. Those companies, less equipped to provide protection for their employees and typically more financially exposed, are among the most vulnerable to the virus.

But representatives of major industries in the automobile and garment sectors have been applying substantial pressure on the government to allow large factories to reopen.

Of particular concern are the “Made in Italy” brands — labels in fashion, food, furniture and mechanical engineering (mostly automobiles) that are largely for export and considered iconic.

The newspaper Corriere della Sera reported over the weekend that such businesses may be allowed to reopen before May 3.

“There is a real risk that these industries will be severely damaged,” said a representative of Confindustria, the Italian employers’ federation, which has been pushing hard to reopen big brands. “You can find ways to allow safe work. But you can’t just stay at home … because the social consequences can be really very, very serious.”

March 26, 202000:59

The Confindustria representative argued that most new cases were transmitted within hospitals, private homes and nursing homes, not workplaces.

But epidemiologists have called such arguments misleading. While most patients who died from the disease are elderly and retired people, many probably contracted the virus from younger working people who carried few symptoms.

Labor unions have argued against returning to work while complaining that big business is prioritizing the economy over workers’ safety.

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“There’s a sort of contradiction between saying always ‘stay at home, stay at home, stay at home,’ but at the same time to tell workers to go to work without the security and conditions,” said Gianna Fracassi, deputy secretary-general of the Italian General Confederation of Labor, Italy’s main labor union.

Fracassi said that even after major industries had agreed with the government to keep the economy shut in public meetings Friday, they then privately lobbied the prime minister to reopen early.

The representative from Confindustria denied that industrial lobbies had disagreed with the government’s decision to extend the lockdown.

But the arguments around the reopening point to an emerging realization about phase two: For many, in particular labor unions such as Fracassi’s, it’s less a new phase than a new reality.

“We will be in a different world, and we will need to be in a very different social and economic situation,” Fracassi said. “We know that we are going to be different at the end of this story, which will be very long.”

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Dan Davies- Weekly Column – Horgan lacks plan to rebuild B.C. economy – Energeticcity.ca

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The good news is we now see a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re able to start planning and thinking about rebuilding —about heading out to local businesses, about being able to start saving again for the future and plotting a path to personal economic recovery.

The bad news is John Horgan, and the NDP don’t seem to have a plan in place for rebuilding British Columbia — and the latest proof is in the Public Accounts for 2020/21.

Normally, these are just dry numbers, and they pass without much notice. This time is different. The numbers don’t lie, and they show where B.C. is at and, more importantly, where the province must go in the coming days.

The provincial deficit sits at $5.5 billion — which is a lot of money. Taxpayer-supported provincial debt has increased by $13.5 billion in 2020/21, with total provincial debt now at $87 billion. This works out to $16,919 in debt for every British Columbian.

Now, the Official Opposition backed the government in providing support, even when John Horgan was bungling the rollout of things like support for small businesses.

But we’ve also been clear that we need a plan to rebuild the economy. It’s not just enough to hope; we need a roadmap that clearly lays out how we ensure there are jobs in every corner of the province. The NDP hasn’t done that, except to spend $500,000 on a consultant from England.

We’re all doing the hard work of figuring out how to get ahead in our personal lives. It’s not too much to expect Premier Horgan to do the same for British Columbia. It’s time for him to do his job and create a B.C. jobs plan.

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What freight rail tells us about the economy – Marketplace

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Warren Buffett was once asked which economic indicator he would choose if he were stranded on a desert island with access to only one set of economic statistics. There are lots of indicators out there — consumer confidence, inflation and unemployment.

But Buffett picked freight rail traffic. And for good reason.

“What we move is the economy. It’s the tangible economy,” said Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “And so as the economy goes, rail goes. So when rail is doing well, it usually means the economy is running pretty strong.”

Right now rail is doing well, especially when it comes to intermodal train traffic, Jeffries said. That’s when products travel in containers from ship to truck or train.

“The highest volumes we’ve ever seen”

“For the first half of 2021 … intermodal traffic was the highest volumes we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Intermodal train traffic was up more than 17% from the first half of last year, Jeffries said. No surprise there, because train shipments fell off when the pandemic started, like the rest of the economy. But intermodal traffic was also more than 5% higher than in 2019, which was a good year. These intermodal trains are brimming with the imported products consumers are demanding. 

“This is a good sign,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a former deputy at the Transportation Department now teaching at George Washington University. “It’s a good sign first of all that people have money to spend. And second, it’s good that they have confidence to spend.”

So, the freight rail tea leaves are pointing squarely toward more economic growth, right? Actually, Furchtgott-Roth said that this year, it’s complicated.

Jammed ports can cause problems on the rails

U.S. ports are backed up with a traffic jam of ships full of imports. Because of that whole intermodal thing, problems at the ports can cause problems on the rails. Plus, shipments for the holidays are starting now.

It could take longer for imported products to reach store shelves, Furchtgott-Roth said.

“If we don’t have enough goods shipped by rail, if the congestion continues, the prices will be higher,” she said.

Freight rail also tells us about U.S. exports. Right now, rail shipments of grain are down. That’s kind of weird, since farmers are producing plenty, said Joseph Schofer, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. Grain might also be caught up in the international shipping snag, he said, or maybe it’s a storage issue.

“If you don’t have enough storage, you can’t move product and the system slows down or freezes up,” he said.

Ore, metal and chemical shipments are up

Rail shipments of other raw materials like ores, metals and chemicals are up, Schofer said; they’re going to U.S. factories, which are ordering a lot of supplies right now.

“Because they have either expectations that they can sell more products, or they have firm orders for more products,” he said.

Either way, Schofer said, it’s a vote of confidence in the economy, pointing the way to more economic growth this fall. How much growth depends on COVID-19, of course, but also how long it takes to unclog the ports and sort out storage issues and other bottlenecks that could cut into the rail shipments the economy needs to keep humming.

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Nova Scotia election: party leaders talk economy with Halifax Chamber of Commerce – CTV News Atlantic

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HALIFAX —
Nova Scotia’s Liberal leader pitched himself as a deficit slayer before a business audience on Wednesday, contrasting his budget balance goals with the spending plans of his Progressive Conservative opponent.

The differing spending strategies were on display as the two party leaders, along with the head of the province’s NDP, responded to questions posed by members of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and debated each other.

“We need to make sure that we are living within our means,” Liberal Leader Iain Rankin told the business crowd. “The spending that is proposed by both opposition parties is in the billions — adding structural deficits that we cannot incur right now.”

Tory Leader Tim Houston has presented a costed platform that projects $553 million in new spending in Year 1 if he’s elected, with about 80 per cent of that dedicated to health care.

Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill told the chamber they planned to run deficits to address needs in health care, housing and long-term care.

In contrast, Rankin spoke of targeted spending to ensure the province can get back to balanced budgets over the next four years. The Liberal leader insisted that a more measured approach to spending would help preserve core government services and prevent future tax increases.

“This government has clearly shown that we will keep taxes low,” he said. “When we got back to (budget) balance four times we reduced taxes for small businesses, we reduced taxes for income tax.”

But Houston said big spending is needed to address challenges, particularly in the health-care sector, in which he proposes to invest an additional $430 million. “We need to be up front and honest,” he said. “Big spending is required to fix health care after eight years of neglect.”

The Tory leader said that even with his new proposed spending, his plan would return the province’s ledger to balance within six years.

Houston highlighted his party’s $140-million program that would allow companies to pay lower taxes if they put more money toward workers’ salaries.

“That’s a very specific government policy that will put more money into the hands of those working families that are struggling to pay for groceries, struggling for housing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Burrill said the NDP — which held only five seats at the legislature’s dissolution — said deficit spending is required during a time when the economy is trying to recover from one of its biggest contractions in recent history.

Burrill also said a $70-million tax break given to the province’s larger corporations that took effect just prior to the pandemic effectively prevented the government from helping small businesses in a meaningful way during the lockdowns.

He warned that if the Liberals win the Aug. 17 election, they will likely cut hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending in order to achieve balanced budgets. The Liberals, Burrill added, balanced budgets during their prior mandate by cutting a film tax credit and rural economic development programs.

The NDP leader also pointed out that most jurisdictions in Canada are not planning to return to balanced budgets for the next six to eight years.

Later in the day, the Liberals, who had been revealing their campaign planks in separate announcements, released their entire platform, estimating the cost of their promises at $454.7 million over four years, including $93.2 million in Year 1.

About $127 million is committed to health care, $77.8 million to skills and job training and $183 million toward economic and business initiatives.

“It is a plan that sets this province on a clear course to recover from the pandemic,” Rankin told reporters.

The Liberal leader presented four new proposals in the platform, including a $30-million, 10-year funding commitment for the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship in Dartmouth, N.S., which is dedicated to researching new technologies for the ocean.

Rankin promised $6 million for the cultural sector, including for a new $3-million “content creator fund” to help boost local talent. The Liberal leader also pledged to create a new cabinet position: minister of digital government, responsible for overseeing initiatives in the digital economy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.

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