WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and his economic advisers look to start reopening the U.S. economy in May, a central question is emerging for companies with supply chains stretching across North America: What if Mexico and Canada don’t have the same timetable in mind?
Manufacturers in sectors ranging from chemicals to electronics have suppliers across the continent’s national borders.
The automotive industry, which halted operations weeks ago to protect workers from the COVID-19 pandemic, is also contemplating how to reboot in North America.
Much of the uncertainty about timing revolves around Mexico, which so far has taken an even stricter approach than the U.S. and Canada in the way it has designated essential businesses allowed to still operate during the health crisis.
The lack of coordination between the three signatories of the revised NAFTA agreement that passed earlier this year — renamed the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement — has caused chaos for many industries. And that’s only going to increase when economic activity in one of the nations resumes.
On Thursday, Trump plowed ahead with his plans to reopen the U.S. economy — releasing guidelines that could allow some states and employers to resume business and work within a month.
“A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution,” the president said in a briefing. “To keep vital supply chains running, these chains have to be taken care of so delicately. We must have a working economy and we want to get it back very, very quickly.”
The shutdown of the American economy and the paralysis of normal life brought with it more than 22 million unemployment claims within four weeks, increasing the pressure on a White House that’s gearing up for re-election to ease the economic pain for businesses struggling to hang on.
Some of the big carmakers have indicated plans to reopen starting in early May. But for the auto industry in particular to get back to producing vehicles, it’s not enough to just reopen parts of or even the entire U.S. economy.
“When we reopen, the fact that everything reopens in a coordinated sequence is very important,” said Kristin Dziczek, the vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Auto supply chains across North America are so intertwined that a smooth reopening means auto-producing states in the U.S., provinces in Canada and Mexican states have to get on the same page, said Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association.
“Industry is so integrated across the three countries that it’s so dependent on coordination at all times,” he said. “If any one auto state doesn’t have the same commitment to safe back-to-work protocols, this thing won’t work.”
While the business communities in the U.S. and Mexico are aligned on the goal to ensure a smooth reopening, coordination between Washington and Mexico City so far hasn’t been as tight.