The COVID-19 Border Rules Dispute: Competing Claims and the Public Good

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On July 8, 2021 an imposing group of Canadian business representatives, led by Chamber of Commerce CEO Perrin Beatty, demanded the Trudeau government delay a possible federal election until the Canada-U.S. border ‘issue’ was resolved to their satisfaction.  By ‘resolved’ Beatty meant wide open for business, including tourism. Apparently big business mistakenly thinks they are in charge of running the country.

Their demand, of course, flew in the face of public opinion polls that have consistently demonstrated nearly 80% of Canadians think there is no hurry whatsoever to loosen border restrictions. It also flew in the face of ongoing public health experts’ concerns that the United States, which started its vaccination campaign with such promise, has now reached an apparent plateau with less than 50% of its population fully immunized and cases of the Delta variant soaring.

Reflecting these concerns, the prime minister indicated that his government was working on a plan for border opening which would be both cautious and incremental. He pointed out that, as of July 5, fully vaccinated Canadians were already eligible to return to Canada without quarantining. He also noted that while the vaccination situation in Canada has certainly improved it is not yet at the scientifically recommended level of 80%. “We still have to be careful,” he said.  The next step “will be looking at what measures we can allow for international travelers who are fully vaccinated. That will be our first focus, and we will have more to say in the coming weeks.” He also stressed that it would be “quite a while” before any unvaccinated travelers would be allowed into Canada.

Trudeau also pointed out that provincial cooperation would be essential for any re-opening plan, something that past events during the pandemic have shown will not automatically be forthcoming. These are, after all, the same premiers who demanded federal action on a range of issues for which they themselves are constitutionally responsible, at the same time that they asked for unconditional federal funding to help them handle those issues.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Trudeau’s response did not satisfy the business leaders, one of whom called for the government to “tear down that international border wall” right away. Yet ten days later, when the federal government announced that fully vaccinated Americans would be allowed to enter Canada for non-essential reasons such as tourism by mid-August, (and all fully vaccinated international travelers would be admitted by sometime in September), the same business leaders were still not happy. In fact, they expressed serious concerns about the federal timetable.

What was their problem now? Four weeks’ notice was not enough time to get ready! “There’s an awful lot that needs to be done between now and then to ensure it operates smoothly”, Perrin Beatty pompously warned. Whoa! What a surprise. Perhaps this is why, for their part, governments know they need to take time to do things carefully, and consider all the consequences, before jumping in with both feet, let’s say to “tear down that international border wall.” Beatty even said with a straight face that once the changes come into effect they will put more pressure on the government to develop a “secure” vaccine passport for international travel. Has he not been listening over the past two months as a steady stream of federal officials has explained that they have been working with their international counterparts to develop just such a passport? Does he think this happens overnight? Beatty himself was once a Conservative politician in the cabinet of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, so one has to wonder if his comments are based on ignorance or motivated by partisan considerations.  

The federal government has obviously thought this one through. The business leaders were even informed that it will take roughly 5 minutes to process each car at land border points once this loosened set of regulations comes into force. Not unreasonable when considering that border officials will now have an additional task in addition to checking for guns, drugs, criminals and illegal immigrants. Now, in order to keep Canadians safe, they will also need to validate vaccination documentation and then enter it into a national tracking system – a system the provinces have said they will not be responsible for and have demanded that the federal government develop. (It has already completed the first stage, with the introduction of the ArriveCan program for eligible returning Canadians. This program, of course, did not materialise overnight. Nor could the rules be changed until it was in place.)  No doubt these same border guards will also have to turn away a number of unhappy foreign tourists who do not have the right documentation. Five minutes may in fact be optimistic.

But 5 minutes per car is simply too long for Beth Potter, president of the Canadian Tourism Industry Association of Canada. “There’s a need to shorten that timeframe down or it’s going to cause a lot of backup.” One wonders what functions she would like the border guards to skip, in her determination to allow as many tourists as possible to enter as soon as possible.

In the end, as with almost every other major issue arising during this pandemic, the large number of competing claims about re-opening the border have shown that even apparently simple decisions are usually difficult. The dispute has also demonstrated why governments appear to act slowly, and why every policy decision is a complex one. There will always be unanticipated consequences, and it will never be possible to please everyone. Politicians need to be able to make hard choices, and stick with them, if they want to make good public policy. Perhaps the life and death nature of so many of these pandemic issues will reinforce this simple truth.