Canada and U.S. are running different COVID-19 reopening races — what are the risks?

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Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says discussions ongoing on possible extension of U.S. / Canada border closure
WATCH: Trudeau says discussions on the possible extension of U.S.-Canada border closure are ongoing – May 13, 2020

Canada and the United States are neighbouring countries running the same race against the spread of the coronavirus — but taking different routes.

The closed border may currently stand as a defense, but experts warn that our “closely integrated” nature may cause issues down the road.

“We’re being cautious in Canada, but to the south, you have different states following different schedules. There’s potential for whatever happens in the U.S., if they can’t get it under control, to pose a risk for us,” said Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

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Canada has taken a go-slow approach. Only as provinces see clear evidence of the pandemic curve flattening have they begun relaxing certain lockdown restrictions. Even then, all are taking a cautious stance by maintaining strict physical distancing rules to guard against a resurgence of the virus.

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The U.S. is focused on getting people back to work sooner than later, despite warnings of “serious consequences” from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert leading the U.S. coronavirus task force. Over the past few weeks, many states have gone full-speed ahead.

The differences between the two countries reflects a difference in culture and values, said Chris Sands, the director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In fact, he said the differences don’t worry him.

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“Canada has a cultural appetite for risk that is far lower than in the United States, and deference to authority still resonates for most — even if its less strongly than before,” he said.

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“In the U.S., there is a strong commitment to liberty and self-reliance… The U.S. turns to federalism, letting communities adapt to local conditions, but we’ll see mistakes along the way, of course.”

But the impact of those mistakes is not out of Canada’s range, Janes believes, especially once the two countries work out when the border will resume.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday he’s spoken to Trump “a number of times over the past few weeks” about the mutual bilateral ban on non-essential travel. He signaled that Canada is bracing for life after lockdown, saying his government is looking at “stronger measures” to follow up on new arrivals as cross-border traffic ramps up again.

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“We all recognize that while we can protect Canadians inside the countries with measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, we remain vulnerable to cases that could come from outside our borders,” he said in French. “We want to make sure we’re not becoming vulnerable from travelers arriving from elsewhere.”

While it’s likely that the border closure will be extended through the summer, the pressure to reopen will build, said Janes.

“Of course no one wants to open up doors to get sick. But on the other hand, the economic suffering is going to get worse and worse. That pressure to open up is going to build, and that pressure is going to go both ways.”

As will the risks, he added.

“With these differing approaches, I face a risk when I go there, but I also face a risk when I go back, exposing others. It’s going to be a challenge for us going forward,” said Janes.

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The U.S. has seen far more movement than Canada. Texas has allowed restaurants, retail shops, hair salons and barbershops to reopen. Georgia’s reopening plans rolled out ahead of most other states, with gyms, bowling alleys, theatres, hair salons and restaurants all in motion. Florida made headlines in early May when citizens flooded beaches as the state reopened.

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By contrast, hard-hit states like California, Washington and New York are keeping things tight, but they are the minority. Of the 50 states, 41 have either partially reopened or plan to reopen soon, according to an ongoing tally by the New York Times.

The pressure to move forward faster has sparked protests in the U.S. Thousands of people have rallied in states like Michigan, where the Democratic governor imposed strict restrictions to safeguard against the virus.

Canada has seen some protests of its own, including in some in British Columbia and Alberta, but not to the same degree.

Despite signs of improvement, Trudeau has consistently warned against going too fast, too soon.

“We’re making decisions for right now,” Trudeau told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously, there are reflections on what next steps could be and might be in different situations and different progressions of COVID-19, but every step of the way in this unprecedented situation we’re reacting to and responding to the realities we see now.”

It’s not out of the question that, as the pandemic draws on, resistance will grow in Canada, said Janes.

While the two countries have “very different political cultures,” they’re both susceptible to the same sort of frustrations, he said.

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“I don’t think we’ll see the same kind of extreme stuff you see in the U.S.,” he said. “But from a policy perspective, we need to plan for the fact that there’s going to be less and less compliance, and our planning should be cognizant of the fact that we’re going to face more non-compliance and the risk that entails.”

–With files from the Associated Press and the Canadian Press

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