Efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have led officials at local, state, and federal levels to make important decisions over what services and industries should be deemed “essential.” 

What businesses are so important to the broader society that we ought to do all we can to ensure their continuity and minimize disruptions to their operations? 

Manufacturing is one such economic sector. Not only do manufacturers produce the consumer goods that we rely on every day, but during this pandemic it’s our manufacturers who are delivering the lifesaving medical equipment we urgently need, in some cases shifting entire factories from the production of some seemingly unrelated item to things like ventilators or personal protective equipment (PPE).

The essential nature of manufacturing is most evident along North America’s borders, where goods whiz back and forth between sister communities from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and between northern industrial powerhouses like Detroit and Windsor, Ont. 

But viruses know no borders. This adds a high-stakes level of complication in companies’ efforts to sustain cross-border manufacturing of desperately needed goods, and to preserve supply chains and logistical operations in this highly integrated and interdependent economy.

North America’s manufacturers are up for the challenge.

Since the declaration of a pandemic, manufacturers have moved swiftly to enhance the safety of their workforce and their workplaces on both sides of the border. 

Whether in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico, already safe, clean, and secure facilities that oftentimes have nurses and medical personnel on-site, are now taking temperatures of employees at the start of shifts, providing PPE to workers, mandating the use of antibacterial gel, sanitizing cafeterias and common areas, practicing social distancing in accordance with government guidelines, prohibiting employee travel, and much more. The measures implemented are standardized at all facilities. Employers are taking steps to ensure their employees stay healthy, no matter where they are working.

And employers are working closely with public health officials, reporting symptomatic cases among employees regardless of which side of the border they might appear, and allowing health inspectors to visit facilities whenever and wherever. In those tragic cases where an employee is lost to a suspected case of COVID-19, employers are transparently sharing any information requested by health agencies.

The reason for these enhanced protocols is obvious: Not only is it the right and responsible thing to do, but without a healthy, vibrant workforce, manufacturers can’t deliver the goods hospitals and governments need to treat patients and keep us safe.

The expansion of the North American economy over the previous quarter-century was due in no small part to the growth of cross-border manufacturing and innovative companies and workers whose products led to hundreds of thousands of new jobs in all three countries and an improved quality of life. 

As we approach the implementation of the USMCA and a new era of cross-border collaboration and cooperation, the coronavirus has thrown the global economy into a state of suspended animation. This is causing some to question whether the interconnectedness that has defined North American borders must be unwound in order to preserve the public’s health.

But shuttering factories isn’t the answer, nor is weakening North American supply chains that could cause entire industries to migrate overseas. 

The manufacturing companies that operate on both sides of the border have proven throughout this pandemic that it’s their products and people who are central to breaking this virus’ stranglehold. This essential sector of the economy can and should continue to operate safely and responsibly in a manner that ensures employees’ health and that of the communities where they’re located.

Editor’s Note: The author of the above guest column, Paola Avila, is chair of the Border Trade Alliance. She is the vice president of international business affairs for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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