Never mind Trump's tweets. Keep an eye on his plan for reopening the economy

The U.S. is farther along in its conversation about reopening the economy. Ideas are percolating all over the country — from the White House to industry and think-tanks — and offer clues to what a post-COVID world will look like in Canada.

Ideas are percolating in the U.S., and they'll affect Canada

As Trump looks on, Dr. Anthony Fauci explains federal advice to states for the third, and final, phase of the recovery before a cure or vaccine arrives for COVID-19. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

The conversation about reopening the economy is farther along in the United States than in Canada, for a variety of political and non-political reasons.

Never mind eye-popping tweets from President Donald Trump. The actual White House plan is more detailed, and more cautious, than his tweets let on.

Meanwhile, the U.S.'s vast ecosystem of think-tanks is churning out ideas for kick-starting the economy. And several states are inching toward a gradual reopening.

American actions will affect Canada.

Just look at the auto industry. It operates across borders, with people carrying pieces back-and-forth in the process of assembling cars. 

Numerous auto companies already have a target date in mind for resuming production: They're aiming for May 4, according to Flavio Volpe, head of Canada's Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association.

Here's where things stand.

What Americans want: a go-slow approach

It's hard to miss the spectacular sight of protesters honking car horns, waving Confederate flags and pressing angry faces against windows as they demand the lifting of lockdown orders.

They're a small group of mainly Trump supporters, and they're being egged on by Fox News and the president. 

Protesters at the Ohio legislature on Monday demanded the lifting of lockdown orders. But this is not the prevailing sentiment in the U.S. In fact, it's not even Trump's own policy. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

But this is not the prevailing sentiment in the U.S. 

What various polls show, including one from Pew Research and one from Gallup, is that the vast majority of Americans want to do this slowly and carefully. 

According to Gallup, over 70 per cent of Americans want to wait and see what happens with the spread of the virus; another 10 per cent want to wait indefinitely; and just 20 per cent would return to normal activities immediately.

Polls do show a partisan gap — to some extent. 

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Republicans and rural residents are supportive of relaunching earlier than Democrats, more of whom live in crowded cities and rely on mass transit. That said, neither poll shows a Republican majority favouring instant reopening.

Neither does Trump's plan. The plan he released this week offers broad guidelines to states as they formulate their plans for reopening. 

The comeback plan: Phase 1, 2, 3

Trump on Friday posted all-caps tweets reading "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!"and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA!" — a not-so-subtle message suggesting dissent against Democratic governors' isolation orders, which one ex-federal prosecutor described as criminally negligent.

But Trump's actual blueprint is more nuanced, and lays out a three-stage approach. It's up to state governors to decide when each phase should start.

Take sporting events as an example. 

Games would start without live fans. Trump describes it as, "Made for television." Eventually, stadiums would allow some fans. "Maybe they'll be separated by two seats," Trump said.

The new normal at the White House: physical distancing at a news conference in the Rose Garden last week. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Then, finally, you'd have larger crowds again. 

It's the same for restaurants. In an initial phase, tables are spaced apart and waiters may wear face shields. In a hair salon, barbers and stylists are wearing protective gear.

That's the kind of incremental comeback envisioned by leaders of Canada's business community.

"A phased approach," said Brian Kingston, of the Business Council of Canada. "This is going to be a very long process." 

There are already blueprints for the auto sector.

Auto-parts maker Lear has publicly released its plan, which calls for one infrared thermometer for every 100 employees; and guaranteed supplies of soap, disinfectant, shields and gloves. 

The company would stagger shifts and lunch breaks, after some of its workers died in Mexico.

Volpe, of the parts manufacturers' association, said a night shift and a day shift might start a half-hour apart so that there's less crowding and more time for cleanups.

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Production would ramp up slowly. 

He said companies couldn't instantly start at 100 per cent capacity even if they wanted to because their suppliers' schedules have also been disrupted.

"You might aim for 50 per cent of volume in Week 1," Volpe said. 

"Then another 10 per cent the next week." 

The nightmare scenario

Here's what terrifies the business community: reopening too quickly then having to close again. The fear is not just over the implications for human health and the broader economy. It's also a fear of cash-flow problems.

Volpe said what scares companies is burning through cash to build products, then the economy stalls, the goods gather dust in the factory, and there's no revenue coming in.

"Companies risk bankruptcy, failure, if we go through a restart and have to shut down again," Volpe said.

Phase 1 of reopening will see sporting events in empty stadiums, Trump says. It's happening elsewhere, including at this April 2 baseball game in South Korea. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

The Business Council is urging the Canadian government to go slowly. It released a letter this week asking for consultations.

"A terrible outcome would be a W-shaped recovery," Kingston said. "That would be absolutely disastrous." 

The big hurdle: testing

Every serious examination of the next steps identifies mass testing as a necessary requirement. And North America isn't there yet.

One of the more conservative U.S. estimates, from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says the U.S. would need at a minimum 750,000, and at a maximum 3.8 million, tests per week.

A proposal at Harvard University is far more aggressive: at a minimum, it calls for one to 10 million tests in the U.S. per day if the country tracks people's movements closely; and possibly hundreds of millions of tests per day without close tracing.

That capacity could exist by early summer, says the paper.

Canada is still testing fewer than 20,000 per day, which, accounting for population size, would put it near the low end of the AEI range, and far lower than what other papers suggest. This week, Health Canada approved a portable DNA analyzer to add capacity.

Early reopening will include unusual scenes, as people take special protective measures. Restaurants and hair salons may look different. With the lockdown lifted in Wuhan, China, barber Yang Guangyu wears a handmade mask while working on a customer. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The U.S. is testing just over 150,000 a day, according to one often-cited resource

All testing helps — even poor-quality tests with a high failure rate will reduce the spread, says Paul Romer, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

As for contact tracing, the left-leaning Center for American Progress proposes using a phone app that people would have to download if they want to get a test or board a plane. It suggests the app's data should be handled by a non-profit.

Co-ordination, or chaos

Another thing that worries business is a case-by-case scenario where different jurisdictions have different rules.

This is true within countries and between them.

Within Canada, the Business Council letter acknowledged that different provinces might move at different paces. 

But it pushed for national protocols that every province can apply. 

Here's what the protocols look like in the U.S.: The White House says states should consider Phase 1 of reopening only after documented cases trend downward for 14 days; and hospitals can treat all patients without crisis measures; and with robust testing in place, including antibody testing, for health-care workers.

For the record, those are essentially the same things Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited when asked this week what it will take to reopen the economy: He mentioned a downward trend in cases, "massive" testing and contact tracing.

But Trudeau added: "We're still many weeks away from talking about actually doing anything to reopen our economy."

Then there are international norms.

Volpe said the private sector is working to introduce shared standards at different facilities. There's some concern in his sector that governments aren't co-ordinating as closely. 

"Companies are all talking to each other," Volpe said. "And one of the questions companies are asking is, 'Are the governments talking to each other?'"


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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