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Angry protests, fading patience to test public health COVID-19 bulwark in U.S.

WASHINGTON — The long shadow of an enduring, Canadian-born protest movement is darkening America's doorstep, just as waning public patience and conflicting policy advice put ever more pressure on fragile COVID-19 defences in the United States.

WASHINGTON — The long shadow of an enduring, Canadian-born protest movement is darkening America's doorstep, just as waning public patience and conflicting policy advice put ever more pressure on fragile COVID-19 defences in the United States.

Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island joined the ranks Wednesday of several other U.S. states, most led by Democrats, in planning to lift or ease rules that require face masks in certain indoor settings.

That's despite the official position of the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks should continue to be worn indoors whenever there's an elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission. 

"We understand where the emotions of the country are — people are tired of masks," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. 

"From the federal government, our responsibility is to … listen to scientists, listen to data. That doesn't move at the speed of politics, it moves at the speed of data."

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said while the agency has not eased its own mask rule, it is tracking the daily caseload and reviewing public safety measures to ensure that they "meet the moment that we're in."

"Cases and hospitalizations are falling — this is of course encouraging," Walensky said. 

"That leads us to have a look at all of our guidance, based on the latest data and the science and what we know about the virus."

The apparent contradiction is just one more straw atop the camel's back in the U.S., which has been deeply divided — largely along partisan lines — over how governments have been dealing with the pandemic. 

And with President Joe Biden's state of the union speech now less than a month away, Americans face the prospect of another irritant: a boisterous, disruptive cross-country trucker protest inspired by what's happening in Canada. 

Right-wing social media sites like Gab, Gettr and Telegram are bristling with talk of a U.S.-based convoy that would travel from California to Washington, D.C., spurred on by online fundraising efforts in support of protesters in Ottawa that have been generating funds at breakneck speed. 

After just five days, a GiveSendGo crowdfunding campaign led by the organizers of the Ottawa protest was nearing the $8 million mark Wednesday, nearly halfway to its stated goal of $16 million.

And while the outsized dollar figures and extensive coverage in the U.S. right-wing media have fuelled speculation about foreign interference, one report appears to have latched on to potential evidence. 

Online news startup Grid reported Tuesday that several popular Facebook groups that promoted the Ottawa protest, all of them since shut down by the platform, were being administered by a single, stolen account.

Bessma Momani, a political-science professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said she found the news revealing — but not surprising. 

Everything about the protests and the social media activity surrounding them smacks of foreign interference, Momani said. Researchers will be delving into the digital breadcrumbs to look for evidence, she added. 

"We're going to be taking a closer look to see the degree to which there's Russian involvement," Momani said. "They don't have to do much. All they have to do is provide the spark, and it takes off from there."

The protests in Canada, already fuelling fierce debate in the House of Commons about vaccination mandates in particular and COVID-19 restrictions in general, may now be exacting a toll on the U.S. economy too. 

Protesters have been blocking or at least slowing cross-border traffic in multiple locations for nearly two weeks now, most recently at the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., the single busiest commercial crossing in North America. 

Busy crossings in Alberta and Sarnia, Ont., have also been targeted. 

"We are watching this very closely," Psaki said of the bridge blockades. 

"The blockade poses a risk to supply chains for the auto industry because the bridge is a key conduit for motor vehicles, components and parts, and delays risk disrupting auto production."

This at a time when the pandemic has already squeezed North American supply chains to the breaking point, pushing prices higher and worsening shortages of everything from grocery items to semiconductors.

"We need to stop the blockage of supply chains," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday. "Jobs are being affected."

Psaki said the U.S. is in close contact with the federal government in Ottawa, as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security officials, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and industry stakeholders as they track the potential impact of the protests. 

"We're very focused on this, the president is focused on this, and we are working very closely with the team at DHS, with Canadian officials and others to do everything we can to alleviate the impact."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press