Canada must keep the border closed until the U.S. can prove it has the virus under control

Canada must keep the border closed until the U.S. can prove it has the virus under control
On a normal day in July almost a quarter of a million people would cross the border from the United States into Canada. These are not, of course, normal days.

The frontier between the United States and Canada, the longest border in the world, has now been closed to non-essential travel for more than three months. In April, entries by non-residents had fallen by 97 per cent compared to the previous year. At some point, Canada must decide when, and how, to reopen the border.

In general, economists favour fewer restrictions to travel, trade and commerce. Our own research on the U.S.-Canada border points to the benefits of facilitating cross-border travel. Consumers get access to a wider variety of goods and services at potentially lower cost supporting businesses providing those products. Back in normal times, we argued to the Senate that Canada should increase exemptions for cross-border travellers and encourage travel.

But this is the new normal. And while, COVID-19 infections appear to have declined to manageable levels in Canada, this is not the case in the U.S. where a modest decline has been replaced by a mid-June resurgence. COVID-19 cases are rising in 40 states. The surge is primarily driven by southern states, whose governors reopened before suppressing the spread of the virus. U.S. federal government inaction bears heavy responsibility as well.

In these circumstances, the only prudent option available to Canada is to indefinitely extend the closure of the border with the U.S. to non-essential travel until the U.S. can demonstrate that it has brought the virus under control.

The current chaos and the irresponsible behaviour by U.S. state and federal governments, as well as the widespread denial of the infection by regular people, means we cannot trust that their citizens will comply with quarantines or obey distancing and mask-wearing rules.

By contrast, Canada’s universities, hospitals and businesses desperately rely on a steady supply of specialized skilled foreign talent, just as our farms rely on seasonal foreign workers. Currently, many potential foreign workers are unable to apply for work permits due to the closure of Canadian consulates. Likewise, many Canadians are being kept apart from their families as permanent immigration for family reunification is suspended.

We cannot halt our regular immigration system forever. And those trips can be monitored, travellers tested and quarantined. By contrast, leisure travellers engaging in same-day slightly longer travel cannot feasibly be tested or quarantined.

Extending the ban on leisure travel will affect certain communities, and the government should consider compensating those mainly border towns that will be most affected. A silver lining is that Canadians will likely to reduce their own international travel due to the need to quarantine on return, and vacation at home boosting domestic tourism.

It is time for Canada to set a clear date on reopening for immigrating workers, family reunification, and regular (permanent) immigration, even as it extends the restrictions on non-essential travel indefinitely.

Ambarish Chandra is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, cross-appointed to the Rotman School of Management. Keith Head is the HSBC Professor of Asian Commerce at the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.
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