Lopsided COVID-19 border rules cause headaches for busy Canadian factories

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FILE PHOTO: The Canada-United States border crossing in Lansdowne

By Allison Lampert and Julie Gordon

MONTREAL/OTTAWA (Reuters) – Some Canadian manufacturing executives are complaining that the country’s confusing and lopsided exemptions to strict COVID-19 border controls have hurt their sector’s competitiveness just as the country faces weaker growth and a resurgence in new infections.

For example, foreign technicians considered “essential” are being allowed into Canada and not required to quarantine, while Canadian workers returning from doing similar work in the United States have to self-isolate for 14 days.

“It favors more foreign nationals than actual Canadian business people,” said Matt Poirier, director, trade policy for Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

“The exemptions are a bit scattered,” Poirier said. “It’ll capture some scenarios but not others.”

Border agents need to know the purpose of travel when considering exemptions, said Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokeswoman Ashley Lemire. A foreigner entering Canada to provide an essential service is different from a Canadian entering the country to return home.

“Even if they technically have the same jobs, it’s the purpose of travel that is considered, not the profession of the traveller,” Lemire said by email.

CBSA added that a Canadian returning after doing a one-time job in the United States would likely have to quarantine. But the worker might be exempt if he or she regularly went back and forth for work.

Darryl Spector, president of automation firm Promation in southern Ontario, said the quarantine has made it hard to find technicians willing to service clients across the border. When they return, he must swallow the cost of lost productivity for two weeks as they work from home.

“The risk is that if we don’t support (the clients in the U.S.) then we potentially erode or jeopardize the business relationship,” Spector said.

“They could say: ‘Maybe I’ll just buy from my local supplier because they won’t have the same service challenges.'”

ESSENTIAL, BUT NOT EXEMPT

Unclear exemptions are an added headache for factories already worried about future lockdowns as new COVID-19 cases spike in Canada’s manufacturing heartland of Ontario and Quebec.

Manufacturing accounts for about 10% of Canada’s GDP and has played an outsized role in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. With some service sector industries again facing restrictions and fewer customers amid rising cases, the strength of segments like manufacturing becomes more important.

Poirier said companies are sometimes granted an exemption from quarantine rules only to get turned down at the border.

“There is a mess of interpretation that is going on out there.”

American billionaire Liz Uihlein caused a fuss when a border agent allowed her into Canada in late August for a short facility visit and exempted her from quarantine. Canada’s Public Safety Minister later said the agent made a mistake.

Canada closed its borders earlier this year to most foreign visitors and mandated 14-day quarantines for all arrivals, including returning Canadians. But essential healthcare workers, first responders, and truckers are not required to isolate.

Less-known exemptions include one which allows foreign workers who “inspect, maintain and repair equipment necessary to support critical infrastructure” to enter Canada without quarantine to do essential work.

Peter Hall, chief economist at Export Development Canada, said Canada appears to be sensitive to the possibility of outbreaks when certain workers return from the United States, where COVID-19 cases are far higher.

“Americans don’t seem to have the same qualms about Canada,” said Hall.

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Julie Gordon in Ottawa, additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and David Gregorio)

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