This weekend, America and Canada will socially distance themselves from each another.
America will close its doors to casual Canadian visitors and shoppers. Canada will do the same.
It is, on the face of it, a costly decision.
Nearly 400,000 people cross our common border every day. Far more Canadians cross the border for pleasure trips than Americans. And Canadians are big spenders. Several years ago, the U.S. government reckoned Canadians spent, on average, about $600 per person on every one of their 12 million-plus annual overnight trips. And that’s just the overnight crowd. Florida is where Canadian tourists spend the most time, and any Floridian can tell you about the money “snowbirds” pour into that state’s economy.
But in the uncertain, frightening moment we are living through, this week’s decision merely bends to reality. Like Americans, Canadians right now are spending as much time as they can at home. Cross-border tourism and shopping had already collapsed. And with both countries requiring all arrivals from any other country to self-isolate for two weeks, it’s hard to imagine what sort of holiday would even be possible.
The decision to close the border was made mutually, by both governments. It was the right thing to do. As Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, put it earlier this week, these are the sorts of discussions friends have.
And we should all be immensely grateful that good common sense prevailed. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a broad range of exemptions for essential travel, meaning the free flow of trade and commerce guaranteed by our updated North American Free Trade Agreement will continue unimpeded. Anyone who understands the integration of our two economies will understand how vital that decision is.
It’s easy to get lost in numbing statistics about vast dollar figures, but consider this: Nearly 9 million American jobs rely directly on trade and investment with Canada. More than half of all the goods and services Canada imported in 2018 came from the United States. Every billion dollars worth of U.S. agricultural exports to Canada supports about 8,100 U.S. workers. Canada is the No. 1 agricultural-export customer for 30 U.S. states. Canada was the second biggest direct investor in the U.S. in 2018.
As both countries struggle to contain the coronavirus, bear in mind that we sell one another vast amounts of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. We are literally saving each others’ lives.
Canada’s population might be only 10% of America’s—there are actually more people living in California than in Canada—but it is a mighty trade partner. Almost certainly America’s biggest right now, given the shocking economic shrinkage China has suffered as a direct result of Covid-19.
Simply stated: Canadians buy more American goods and services than any other country at the moment, and America is Canada’s biggest customer by far.
Digest that, then ask yourself whether it makes sense to keep allowing essential workers to continue crossing the border by truck, train, marine vessel and aircraft, as both governments have decided to do. And whether it makes sense to exempt the healthy ones from the requirement to self-isolate for two weeks, as both governments have done.
Take a look at the number of Americans and Canadians with extended families in the other country and consider whether compassionate visits—to assist a relative in the event of an emergency or sickness—should be permitted, as will be the case.
As we shelter against this dreadful threat, as we try to protect ourselves and our loved ones, let us not forget that our health depends on our economic well-being, too. Our comfort and prosperity hang from a complex, exceedingly fragile web of supply chains, agreements, contracts, and mutual understandings.
Let’s put it this way: If we completely closed our common border, the shock would be so devastating that the massive economic stimulus currently under way in DC would almost certainly fail.
At a moment like this, none of us needs to worry that our way of life will have the legs kicked out from under it by an overreacting impulse to seal ourselves off entirely.
Right now, no one is a libertarian. We all understand that we depend on good government as the storm howls outside, and the decision to keep our common border with Canada open to essential traffic is the best kind of governing.
Maryscott Greenwood is the CEO of the Canadian-American Business Council, a partner at Crestview Strategies, and a member of the board of Tilray.