I Crossed Back Into a State of Denial

At the Canada-U.S. border, I encountered a study in contrasts.

Cole Burston / Bloomberg / Getty

Updated at 3:52 p.m. ET on September 6, 2020.

On the Fourth of July, I drove across the border from the United States into Canada. Two months later, I drove the other way. Both times, I crossed at the same point: just east of Lake Ontario, amid the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River. Both times, I was driving a rented U-Haul, carrying household effects I was swapping between city and vacation house. And there the similarities stopped.

When I entered Canada, the single official I encountered wore a high-quality face mask. She asked me to lower my mask briefly so she could inspect my face, then probed with three questions: By what right did I enter Canada? (I was born there.) What was in the truck? (Personal effects.) And what was my plan for quarantine and self-isolation in Canada?

That last topic occupied probably six or seven minutes. She asked where I would stay, who else would be there, how I would get groceries and other necessities. She took my email address and phone number. The entire process—including the wait time for the one vehicle ahead of me when I halted—occupied approximately 15 minutes. Over the following two weeks, I would receive daily messages by text or robocall to confirm that I was complying with quarantine rules. Once, I received an in-person call. I don’t know that there was really any follow-up beyond these contacts, but they reminded me that I had given a promise and that somebody cared whether I honored that promise.

On the return trip, I was halted at a checkpoint a couple of hundred yards before the inspector booth. I showed my U.S. passport, answered a question about residence, and rolled forward. None of the three officers at the checkpoint wore a mask.

The U.S. station was much larger and busier than the Canadian station, crowded with trucks, and much more heavily staffed. More than one lane was open, and it took me a minute to ascertain the correct one. The officer at the inspection booth also did not wear a mask. He told me to remove my mask and keep it off for as long as we talked. He asked as many questions as his Canadian counterpart, but his focus was very different. We talked in detail about the contents of the truck. Was I carrying marijuana? Cash? Weapons? He did not ask a single question about COVID-19 or quarantine. He then waved me forward to a secondary inspection, an electronic screening of the truck. A police car, its driver unmasked, led me to the station. Two officers there, again unmasked, explained how to drive my truck past an X-ray machine. Afterward, an eighth officer, unmasked like the others, asked me to step out of the cabin so he could look around. Then I was sent on my way. Total time elapsed: 50 minutes.

All the U.S. officers were professional and courteous, and a couple went out of their way to be pleasant. One apologized for a delay at the secondary screening; something had gone wrong with the machine for a few minutes. But nobody seemed to reckon with the whole reason that the border had been closed in the first place. Here I was, a potential disease carrier crossing a border, and nobody seemed interested or concerned enough to do anything about it. And none of them was taking the elementary precaution of mask wearing to protect themselves and one another.

It was an apt introduction to the transition between the United States and Canada. On one side of the border, almost everybody took the virus seriously—and few people had it. On the other, the reverse.

The good news is that in the U.S., the rate of new infections has declined somewhat from its early summer peak. Vaccines do seem to be on their way—not as fast as President Donald Trump insists, but perhaps sometime in the first part of 2021.

Until that day, however, it’s pretty obvious that the real policy of the United States is to claim the rewards of successful virus management—a return to schools and universities, reopened bars and restaurants, resumption of sports—without first doing the work of successfully managing the virus.

On my first day home, September 3, my city of Washington, D.C.—population 705,000—reported 58 new COVID-19 cases. That same day, the province of Ontario, which I had just left—population 14.57 million—reported 132 new positive tests.*

Despite this depressing comparison, the District of Columbia is actually doing a better job fighting the coronavirus than most of the United States is. The seven-day average here in D.C. is less than one-third of what it was at the peak in early May. For the U.S. as a whole, the seven-day average in early September is fully two-thirds of what it was at the peak in mid-July.

It did not have to be this way. But as Trump aptly said of himself and his policy, “It is what it is.” He accepted more disease in hopes of stimulating a stronger economy and winning reelection. He’s waiting now for the return on that bet. As so often in his reckless career, his speculation seems to be that if the bet wins, he pockets the proceeds. And if the bet fails? The losses fall on others.

As a businessman, he played with other people’s money. As a politician, the stakes have been other people’s lives. In both his careers, his gambles have usually failed.

* This article has been updated to clarify the incidence of COVID-19 in Ontario on September 3.