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Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-U.S. border crossing, in Windsor, Ont., on March 21, 2020.

Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press

Canada and the United States will almost certainly agree to keep the border between the countries closed beyond the current deadline of June 21. With the U.S. struggling to contain COVID-19, even as demonstrations rock American cities, some Canadians may wonder whether that border should reopen any time soon.

Yes it should. This country’s economic survival depends on an open border with the U.S. The real question is how to reopen. And the answer is uncomfortable, because it involves gradually abandoning quarantines and easing restrictions on physical distancing.

“We have to move away from this all-or-nothing, stay at home, all economies are frozen approach,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

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“We have to start resuming some normal parts of life, and move toward a risk-management platform rather than a zero-interaction one. And that’s where the border becomes really complex.”

Canada and the U.S. didn’t fully close the border back in March. Both countries took steps to ensure supply chains remained intact. From agriculture to automobiles, goods continue to cross the 49th parallel in both directions.

But people aren’t crossing, with a few exceptions such as truck drivers and essential workers. And that’s a huge problem.

“People have to cross the border to do business,” said Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor. “People have to talk to each other in face-to-face communication.”

Zoom meetings have their uses. But “the more complicated the information that is being conveyed between two people, the more important it is for them to get face to face,” Mr. Anderson said in an interview. From the technology sector to tourism, restoring an open border is crucial to reviving the Canadian economy.

Yet even if scientists develop a vaccine, the novel coronavirus will likely be with us for years, putting people – especially the elderly and physically vulnerable – at risk. And although infection rates are converging, COVID-19 remains far more prevalent in the U.S., with a mortality rate of 327 per million, than in Canada, where it is currently 197 per million.

Opening the border could be done in phases, with family reunification followed by economic or geographical sectors.

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“For a while I thought it had to be all or nothing," Prof. Trautman said.

“But as it becomes clear that these restrictions are probably going to be in place for a while, I’m recalibrating my perspective.”

For example, both British Columbia and Washington State have much lower infection rates than Ontario and New York. There’s an argument for beginning to lift restrictions in the West before the East.

But things will remain mostly closed so long as both countries impose or recommend quarantines. Physical distancing also hampers travel, trade and tourism.

At the Cross-Border Institute, researchers are exploring ways to maximize safety while reducing queues at crossings through prescreening.

Contact-tracing apps, so-called immunity passports, the experimental Known Traveller Digital Identity program – which would let travellers cross borders without a passport, using data encrypted on their phones – and other measures all pose technical and ethical challenges. But those challenges must be overcome, to ensure the expected second wave of infections this fall doesn’t shut everything down again.

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Most Canadians probably give little thought to another group who used to cross the border but no longer do: refugees and irregular asylum claimants. Travel restrictions and the extension of the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. to cover the entire border have essentially closed Canada off from both groups.

It’s pretty easy to argue that business travel should have a higher priority than humanitarian claims at a time of economic crisis.

But “shouldn’t the most vulnerable have the highest priority?” asks Sean Rehaag, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University.

He finds it politically expedient but unjust that political leaders focus on reopening the border for the most privileged, while keeping it closed for the most vulnerable.

Canada is a country of immigrants, a free-trading country, a country open to the world. Remaining open, despite the threat of COVID-19, comes with risks, but closing ourselves off would be worse. We need to reopen the border with the U.S. as soon and as completely as we can.

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