WASHINGTON — In the shark-infested seas of the world's new normal, Canada and the United States are in the same leaky economic boat — but one is bailing water while the other swims for shore.
Both countries confronted historic and harrowing employment statistics Friday, with two million people out of work in Canada last month for a jobless rate of 13 per cent. There were 20.5 million Americans who reported the same fate, bringing U.S. unemployment to a breathtaking 14.7 per cent.
But as President Donald Trump leads a U.S. charge towards reopening shuttered businesses and easing stay-at-home orders, to the chagrin of nervous public health officials, Canada is taking a dramatically different go-slow approach, extending a federal wage subsidy program through June and counselling against unsafe work.
"It is a well-established principle in Canada, a hallmark of our values as a country, that no one should be asked to work in unsafe conditions," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during his daily news conference.
"We're going to have to be very careful to ensure that we're doing what we need to do, right across the country — businesses, orders of government and all Canadians — to ensure the safety of the people who are working to provide for the rest of us."
Trump, on the other hand, is champing at the bit to restart a presidential re-election campaign that hinges on his ability to resurrect an economy that was stopped in its tracks by COVID-19. And he's seizing on the images of Americans protesting outside state capitols, many of them forgoing masks and physical distancing measures, to make his case.
"The people are going to force it," the president said Friday in an morning telephone interview with Fox News. Not all states will reopen at the same pace, while those that do will continue to insist on keep-safe practices, he said. In some cases, COVID-19 may flare back up, but that will simply be the cost of doing business, Trump suggested.
Some people — including Democrat governors in states that are moving more slowly — don't want it to come back "for political reasons," he added.
"We may have fires and we're going to put the fires out," he said. "It's happening already. You can see it. And there's spirit now — there's a lot of spirit. Because we have over 30 states that are back or very strongly coming back and that's going to be a lot higher soon."
The White House has taken to referring to Americans as "warriors" in recent days, a move seen by some as bracing for the possible impact of a fresh resurgence in COVID-19 as states continue to lift their restrictions. Indeed, even Trump is more exposed than usual: one of his personal valets and now the vice-president's press secretary both tested positive this week.
More bad jobs news will likely come in May, but as more businesses open their doors and federal stimulus efforts take hold, the third quarter of the fiscal year should show signs of improvement, said senior White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
"Reasonably good economic analysis suggests that the reopening of the economy, the safe reopening of the economy, will provide much better numbers," Kudlow said, who described the April jobs numbers as "heartbreaking."
Hard-hit states like New York, California and Washington are still largely locked down, but beaches, restaurants and retail stores are open in Florida, while Georgia has reopened gyms, hair salons and bowling alleys. Swimming pools and shopping malls are back in business in Texas, despite evidence that COVID-19 is still on the march in the Lone Star State.
Across the U.S., the push to reopen has become a Republican rallying cry, one with its very own freedom fighter: Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon a la Mode in Dallas, received a hero's welcome Thursday after she was briefly jailed for refusing to apologize for opening her business last month in defiance of a lockdown order.
It's a different story in Canada.
Throughout the Atlantic provinces, certain medical procedures and "low-risk" activities like golf, fishing and hunting have either already resumed or are expected to next week, but with the usual caveats of avoiding gatherings and maintaining physical distance. Quebec has reopened retail stores and lottery terminals outside of Montreal.
In Ontario, selected retail stores are reopening this weekend, but mobility restrictions will persist until May 19, while visits to the dentist or chiropractor have resumed in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Non-urgent surgeries resumed this week in Alberta, and retailers will begin opening their doors next week. B.C. is eyeing mid-May for a gradual rebooting of retailers, restaurants and museums.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, asked about the different approaches in the two countries, avoided mentioning the United States by name. "Smart" and "sensible" Canadians understood from the outset the importance of physical distancing and shutting down the country to combat the virus, she said — and still do.
"The same sensible, prudent, smart approach needs to guide the restart, and I think Canadians understand profoundly that the biggest mistake we could make right now would be to squander our hard-won gains," Freeland said. Friday's jobs data underscore the magnitude of the sacrifice, she added.
"Our job now collectively is to build on that progress, and to ensure that as we look towards restarting the economy, we do it very carefully, very prudently and in a way that will prevent the virus from surging back and enveloping us all."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2020.
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James McCarten, The Canadian Press