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A ‘perfect storm’ of pre-election uncertainty along the U.S.-Canada border

Emma McIntosh, Canada’s National Observer
October 22nd, 2020

In normal times, residents of Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, Mich., cross the U.S.-Canada border as easily as many of us might wade through a cool stream on a summer day.

Windsor residents would drive across the Detroit River to catch a concert or a sports game. Folks from Detroit would pass over to visit seasonal cottages on the Canadian side or to shop. Cross-border friends, families and business associates could zip back and forth on the Ambassador Bridge or the Detroit-Windsor tunnel largely as they pleased.

All of that changed in the chaotic early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump shut the border to non-essential traffic. Since then, Canadian officials have said Canada’s busiest border crossing will stay shuttered as long as the public health risks involved in reopening outweigh the economic damage done by keeping the border shut.

“We keep extending the border closures because the United States is not in a place where we would feel comfortable reopening those borders,” Trudeau said earlier this month.

‘A very long and painful closure’

Though Trump insisted in September that “Canada would like (the border) open,” polls have consistently shown the opposite. Nine in 10 Canadians favour border restrictions, according to a survey released by Research Co. last month.

Looking at public health data, it’s easy to see why. Michigan has reported a rate of about 1,640 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people since the pandemic began. Even as cases surge again in Canada, Ontario’s cumulative rate of COVID-19 is much lower, at about 443 per 100,000 people.

At the same time, the closure has brought significant challenges on both sides.

On top of COVID-19 shutdowns, small businesses ⁠— hotels, motels, restaurants, retail stores and more ⁠— have been devastated by the drop in cross-border tourism, Naidu said. Nearly 25 per cent of income for some main street retail stores typically comes from American visitors, he added.

Former vice-president Joe Biden, who is leading in the national polls against Trump, has promised a more stringent approach that includes increased access to personal protective equipment, improved testing, a plan for distributing a vaccine and a task force to address the way COVID-19 disproportionately harms communities of colour.

Though the outcome of the election and the trajectory of COVID-19 are far from certain, a Biden administration that is relying on science and taking action on the virus might make it easier to reopen the border, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, which represents a multitude of employers in the Windsor region.

“There are no shortcuts to the end of the pandemic,” Volpe said. “There are pretty good shortcuts to mitigating it right now.”

Beyond COVID-19, election could shape cross-border trade

COVID-19 is not the only factor affecting cross-border business relationships.

In the past four years under the Trump administration, trade relations between the U.S. and Canada have soured. Trump has started numerous fights over tariffs and has threatened to introduce more if he wins the election.

“We’ve got an incumbent who is likely heading to a loss, although I guess anything is possible. Because his campaign, and him, feel like they’re headed for a loss, they’re heading to the rhetoric that has been fertile for them,” Volpe said.

“A lot of that is protectionist.”

A Biden administration might come with its own challenges ⁠— the former vice-president has said he would want the U.S. to re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Volpe said could erase some gains for Canadian automakers that came from the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But stability could also go a long way, Volpe said.

“(Trump) chooses to play with the Dow while putting children in cages,” he added. “Sometimes these decisions don’t really hinge on business… Peace always pays, and we have none right now.”

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