Citizens Research Council Commentary by Tim Michling
In a Nutshell:
- The border to Canada, long closed to non-essential travel from the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic, reopened for Americans meeting certain qualifications (i.e., vaccination)
- The Province of Ontario has implemented more robust public health safeguards than Michigan or many other U.S. states
- Travelling to Ontario, I found it liberating to be able to spend time (and money) in a place where my health was taken seriously
As a trained public health professional, I always strive to practice what I preach, and so I have made substantial changes to my daily life throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Though it was difficult, physical time with friends and family was greatly reduced or eliminated. Despite a love of dining, I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve sat in a restaurant since the start of the pandemic (the few times being predominantly outdoor dining post-vaccination). Travel was also completely taken off the menu by COVID-19.
I had previously hoped that a trip this summer to take my mother to Dollywood (she has always wanted to go) might be possible once we each completed two rounds of vaccination. However, yet another surge of COVID-19 that began in southern states driven by the unvaccinated has taken this trip off the table for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the fact that Tennessee’s state government fired its top public health official for vaccination for actively promoting vaccination in the face of this latest surge certainly makes me question if that’s the sort of place I’d want to spend any of my time or resources.
When the Canadian border reopened on August 9th, however, I viewed it as an opportunity for travel that didn’t pose as many undue public health risks. Put simply, Ontario has a higher rate of vaccination against COVID-19 than Michigan and has implemented or maintained numerous public health safeguards that Michigan has not.
On August 25th, Ontario (population 15 million) reported 678 new COVID-19 cases with a seven-day average of 646. The same day, Michigan (population 10 million) reported 5,002 cases with a seven-day average of 2,028. Michigan has a notably larger case rate than its larger neighbor, Ontario, despite faring better than many other states for the time being.
The Border Crossing Process
While previous border crossings may have required only a passport or enhanced drivers license, the current process is a bit more involved. First, all travel details and necessary documentation (including proof of vaccination) must be submitted to the Canadian government in advance of travel through ArriveCAN. This was no problem, as my wife and I were both vaccinated at the first opportunity we were given. Additionally, crossing the border requires a negative test result for COVID-19 within 72 hours of crossing the border. Thankfully, testing is now widely available, and we had our negative results electronically within 24 hours of being tested.
Having done our homework in advance, the border crossing into Canada was simple, and we were on our way to enjoy the bountiful hospitality of our polite neighbors to the north.
Experiencing Ontario’s Public Health Regulations Firsthand
Most of our trip focused on outdoor activities, from the resplendent Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington and Hamilton to the spectacular Niagara Falls and Niagara Parks system. We enjoyed some indoor opportunities for shopping, dining, and wine tasting, as well. These activities felt much safer and more responsible with widespread public health safeguards in place.
While Michigan’s state and local governments play a volatile game of hot potato to see who gets stuck implementing school mask mandates for the fall, Ontario has a simpler approach: everyone over the age of 2 must wear a mask in all public spaces with a limited set of exceptions. We packed several masks and were happy to wear them (and even happier to see others doing so as well). Patrons without masks would be refused service, but we didn’t see anyone arguing over masks – just people enjoying themselves while showing respect for one another. This is not to say that public health regulations are universally supported by all Canadians – a host of one establishment told us they had turned someone away for not having a mask the previous day—but we saw none of the complaining or boisterous public outcry that we witness at home over something so simple as a face covering.
Physical Distance and Capacity Limitations
Though Michigan has long since abandoned capacity restrictions on restaurants or other businesses, all businesses/public establishments in Ontario remain subject to various capacity and physical distancing restrictions. Some establishments we visited were offering only outdoor dining/service with wide spacing between tables. One charming ice cream parlor allowed only three patrons inside at a time, with individuals leaving once they made their purchase. Many restaurants, wineries, and other attractions required or strongly advised reservations to help comply with capacity and spacing requirements. While it took a bit of extra work to plan a trip around numerous reservations, the ultimate experience was very rewarding.
Screening and Contact Tracing
Michigan never mounted a comprehensive contact tracing program, lacking adequate public health resources and capacity, and even relied on volunteers early in the pandemic. In contrast, Ontario has developed a more visible and seemingly more robust contact tracing and case management program. Restaurants and other businesses in Michigan balked at the idea of collecting contact information of patrons. In Ontario, we completed a basic COVID-19 screening questionnaire and entered our contact info at nearly every place we visited. If a coronavirus exposure or outbreak was later traced back to one of the places we visited, we would have been contacted to provide advice for us to isolate and get ourselves tested.
Defining Freedom in Theory and Practice
The few days of vacation I spent in Canada were extremely revealing. It was liberating to be in a country/province where public health is taken seriously. For the first time in a long while, I was able to go about my business without as much concern for people unknowingly transmitting a novel, mutating virus to each other. In practice, I enjoyed a very tangible freedom that enabled me to go about the process of pursuing happiness without unnecessary threats to my life and health, despite whatever theoretical loss of freedom I may have experienced by wearing a mask and participating in Ontario’s contact tracing protocols.
I understand that some of my fellow citizens define freedom through defiance of authority and the admonition that “the government can’t tell me what to do,” but this is not a uniformly held belief. Successful public health measures, such as laws mandating the use of seat belts, public bans on smoking, or the campaign to end drunk driving, have often met with some public resistance of this kind, but never before has the outcry reached such a fevered pitch that it resulted in widespread threats of harm against public health officials and others tasked with keeping the public safe.
The Citizens Research Council was founded to promote evidence-based approaches to good governance. At the core of good governance is the recognition that citizens’ mutually-enjoyed freedoms are upheld by shared civic responsibilities. I therefore view freedom as the ability to exercise one’s choices, passions, and preferences within societal boundaries that protect each individual from harm and prevent each individual from harming others, even unwittingly or unintentionally.
We’ve lived with “no shirt, no shoes, no service” for as long as I can remember, but simply adding a mask to the equation during a global pandemic is somehow a bridge too far. Unless more of my fellow Americans stop conflating minor inconveniences with genuine tyranny and oppression, I truly do fear for our freedom.