As Trump muses about easing COVID-19 restrictions, all eyes are on the border

As Trump muses about easing COVID-19 restrictions, all eyes are on the border

Canada may face additional pressure to re-examine its pandemic response border agreement with the United States if U.S. President Donald Trump follows through on speculation that he might ease social distancing recommendations in the next week. 

However, Ottawa likely will be able to avoid making difficult decisions about additional restrictions thanks to the work of governors who are enforcing robust measures in their individual states, two former diplomats say.

Dramatically different messages emerged from Ottawa and Washington on Monday, as the leaders of both countries attempt to navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

In his most blunt public comments to date, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians today at his daily pandemic briefing that they must take to heart directives from public health officials to stay home and avoid gatherings.

"Enough is enough. Go home, and stay home," Trudeau said. "This is what we all need to be doing."

President Donald Trump seems to be leaning toward a different approach. He recently made the case for easing the social distancing guidelines his administration issued, which are to expire next week.

In a late Sunday night all-caps tweet, Trump wrote:

"WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!"

"The president is right," Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser, told Fox News. "We can't shut in the economy. The economic cost to individuals is just too great."

Trump v. the experts

Trump is reportedly furious about the state of the economy — and is directing his anger at the public health officials who have made decisions that have hurt markets and killed jobs, ultimately making his re-election bid far more difficult. 

His public musings about allowing social distancing restrictions to expire directly contradict warnings issued by members of his inner circle. 

"I want America to understand this week it's going to get bad, and we really need to come together as a nation," U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told NBC's Today, hours after the president's initial tweet. 

"Everyone needs to be taking the right steps right now, and that means stay at home."

If Trump gives Americans the all-clear to return to normal life at a time when public health officials are warning the pandemic is about to get worse, it may make some Canadians question whether allowing any travel between Canada and the U.S. is safe.

It's almost like you have 50 states operating with 50 different sets of rules. - Ex-diplomat Bruce Heyman

On Friday, Trudeau and Trump separately announced that non-essential travel between the two countries would be temporarily banned for 30 days. Trade and commerce continues as usual.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he thinks that border policy will still work, regardless of what the White House does — and it's because of actions taken by individual governors.

"If Donald Trump says, 'Eat, drink and be merry' … he's going to run into problems from states who will then exercise their authority," he told CBC News.

"They are much more realistic about the problem — Democrats and Republicans alike."

'Please, God, stay home'

Governors in 13 different states have issued stay-at-home orders which collectively apply now to more than 100 million Americans.

"Please, God, stay home," said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday.

Those not following social distancing regulations are "reckless," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"It's violative of your civic spirit and duty as a citizens as far as I'm concerned," he said.

"It's actually fallen to our governors to take a leadership role," said Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada under Barack Obama.

"It's almost like you have 50 states operating with 50 different sets of rules because we don't have the overall guidance coming out from the White House."

Heyman said he thinks Trudeau may need to re-examine the border agreement if problems develop.

"It would surprise me that that would be needed, but the prime minister will have to respond to whatever he is confronted with," he said.

A source with direct knowledge of the situation says the Canadian government is leaving nothing off the table in its pandemic policy. That line is consistent with what the prime minister has said publicly.