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E.U. to reopen borders to travelers with accepted vaccines


BRUSSELS - The European Union has agreed to open its borders to vaccinated Americans and others, after more than a year in which travel into the bloc has been severely restricted, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The decision represents a formal turning point away from the eerie, economy-sapping status quo of the coronavirus pandemic, when major cities in the 27-nation bloc have been empty of tourists.

Officials said the reopening could take effect within days of final approval, which is expected this week or next and is not in doubt after ambassadors agreed to the plan on Wednesday.

"Today, E.U. ambassadors agreed to update the approach to travel from outside the European Union," European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told reporters. The European Council "now recommends that member states ease some restrictions, in particular for those vaccinated with an E.U.-authorized vaccine."

That means all the coronavirus vaccines available in the United States would allow travel, but vaccines manufactured in Russia and China would not be. The E.U. guidance is not binding, so some countries could choose to be more or less restrictive than the bloc as a whole.

Another matter that still needs to be sorted out: Some E.U. countries currently require quarantines of all new arrivals, regardless of vaccination status. Belgium and France, for instance, require seven days. But European policymakers are working on a plan to sweep away those rules. A full proposal is expected as soon as Friday, though it could take several weeks to implement.

Britain, which is no longer a member of the European Union, has a separate set of rules, with no special treatment yet for vaccinated travelers. A traffic-light system sets out requirements based on the risk presented by different countries. Americans can travel there, but they must quarantine for at least five days.

Europe's vaccination campaign has lagged behind those of the United States and Britain, though it has picked up speed recently. Some officials have been reluctant to grant privileges to vaccinated foreigners that were unavailable to large portions of their own unvaccinated populations. But that worry is diminishing by the day - the E.U. pace is now faster than that in the United States.

One-third of E.U. residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared with 48% of U.S. residents. The E.U. percentage is where the United States was six weeks ago.

Within the European Union, Mediterranean countries have pushed hardest to find a way to reopen. Greece, Italy and Spain depend heavily on tourism, and that saw their economies contract more than their northern neighbors during the pandemic.

Greece decided it could not wait and last month opened to Americans and residents of dozens of other countries even while lockdown restrictions limited its appeal as a destination.

Some people in tourist-dependent countries now say the coordinated E.U. plan is welcome, but it may come somewhat late, making it hard to salvage the initial months of the travel season.

"The actual expectations so far are pretty low" that 2021 will resemble something normal, said Luigi Panella, 47, a limousine driver who deals mostly with British and American clients along Italy's Amalfi Coast.

Massimo Pasqualetti, 45, who co-operates a food and wine tour group in Tuscany, said interest in his company is beginning to pick up; it is 10% of what it used to be. Across Tuscany, he said he's starting to notice the first trickle of tourists.

"A month ago, we saw nothing. Nothing was moving," Pasqualetti said. "But we are suddenly more optimistic than before."

He said that his income collapsed last year, and that the business survived only because he and his partner began offering online-based cooking classes: everybody in their own kitchen, around the world, cooking Tuscan ragu and pasta.

"Our aim, this whole time, has been, 'Let's survive, let's survive,' " he said. "I think we are going to survive."

As part of the same decision on Wednesday, the European Union plans to expand a list of countries deemed to have the pandemic under sufficient control, such that people can travel from there regardless of their vaccination status. The new criteria for the list would still be tight enough that it would exclude the United States, though the country could conceivably make the cut sometime in June if cases continue to decline at their current pace.

The European Union will also implement what it is calling an emergency brake - an automatic halt to travel from countries where cases are spiking, in an effort to hold back more dangerous variants of the coronavirus.

E.U. countries are separately trying to streamline travel inside the bloc, which is stymied by a patchwork of rules about quarantines, tests and vaccines. Progress on what are officially known as "green certificates," but informally understood as covid-19 passports, could be announced as soon as Friday. The goal is for Europeans to be able to prove that they are vaccinated, have a recent negative coronavirus test or have recently had the disease and probably will not spread it. E.U. officials hope that the program will be operational by mid-June, and that it will reduce quarantining and testing requirements.

Because individual countries will still be able to set their own rules about what they require from aspiring visitors, it is possible that some of the more cautious ones will still ask vaccinated travelers to quarantine. But those kinds of rules will probably start dropping away as the European Union adapts its rules to diminishing fears that vaccinated travelers could still spread the virus.

 

Wednesday's decision "gradually opens safe travel from and to the EU," tweeted Ylva Johansson, the top E.U. official charged with home affairs.

Published : May 20, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum, Chico Harlan