US to lift covid travel ban, allowing entry for vaccinated Europeans and others
WASHINGTON - The White House announced on Monday that it would be lifting blanket travel restrictions on visitors from Europe, Britain and other countries that had been imposed at the start of the pandemic.
Under rules to take effect in early November, fully vaccinated travelers from anywhere in the world would be able to fly to the United States, though they would also be subject to new testing and contact-tracing procedures, Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a call with reporters.
Zients said the new system "follows the science" to keep Americans and international travel safe and would be "relying on individuals, rather than a country-based approach, so it's a stronger system."
The announcement came as President Joe Biden prepared to meet face-to-face this week with world leaders and diplomats at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It also comes at a time of tense relations between Washington and Europe.
European leaders have voiced frustration with the administration's handling of the pullout from Afghanistan, while France is enraged by a U.S. deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia that undercut its own agreement.
The travel ban - though a low-profile issue in the United States - had been particularly galling to Europeans, with one British newspaper dubbing it "Kafkaesque."
"Over the past few months the travel ban went from a minor irritant in the transatlantic relationship to an existential threat to Biden's Europe policy. There was simply no scientific justification for it after European vaccination rates exceeded those of the United States," said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
The ban on entry to travelers who had been almost anywhere in Europe in the previous 14 days was first imposed by the Trump administration, by executive order, more than 550 days ago. It has been kept in place under Biden, even as the coronavirus picture improved in Europe and worsened in the United States.
Though exceptions were made for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, along with a small number of visa holders, the strict rules had stopped millions of potential travelers, costing businesses and leading to profound personal disruption for Europeans, many of whom missed major life events, from births to deaths.
In total, the travel restrictions had impacted 33 nations, including Britain, India and China. The White House announcement on Monday applies to all travelers from outside the United States arriving via air.
However, the most vocal reaction was from Europe, which accounts for a large portion of visitors to the United States and where diplomats had become increasingly outspoken over the restrictions.
"Travel ban lifted!" tweeted Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union's Ambassador to Washington, who only hours earlier had said that E.U. member states had been "working diligently" to help get the ban lifted.
Many on the continent had expected the United States to lift the restrictions over the summer, in return for their own relaxation of restrictions on travelers from the United States in June. But no reciprocal move was forthcoming.
Some diplomats fumed that while the restrictions were once understandable, they had become nonsensical, with few restrictions on U.S. travelers who could carry the virus, even when they were coming from countries with low rates of vaccination and high rates of daily cases.
Although the European Union had initially lagged behind in vaccinations, it overtook the United States this summer. As of last week, about 60 percent of the 27-nation bloc was fully vaccinated, compared to 53 percent in the United States, where pockets of anti-vaccination sentiment have helped slow early success.
"The issue had been rising among public opinion in Europe, and European leaders were increasingly under pressure to impose reciprocity on Americans," said Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.
Monday's announcement appeared to mark an abrupt U-turn in thinking from the Biden administration. Last week, citing the spread of the delta variant, Zients told a meeting with representatives from the U.S. travel industry that the administration was "maintaining the existing travel restrictions at this point," and the White House stated there was no imminent policy change.
It is unclear if heightened political tensions in the U.S.-EU relationship ultimately pushed the United States to drop the ban.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a long discussion about the travel ban on Friday with the French ambassador to Washington, Philippe Etienne, just before Etienne was ordered to return to Paris due to France's anger over a U.S.-UK-Australia submarine deal, said a senior State Department official familiar with the matter.
When asked if the decision to lift the ban was aimed at restoring relations with Europe after recent such setbacks, Erica Barks-Ruggles, a State Department official at the Bureau of International Organizations, said the decision was "driven by the science."
Some details of the new rules may also need to be ironed out. It is not yet clear if vaccines that have not been authorized in the United States, such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot or vaccines made by China and Russia, will be accepted.
Under the new rules, vaccinated travelers to the United States will have to test negative for the virus within three days before departure. The new policy also requires that airlines collect passenger information, including a phone number and email, to improve contact-tracing efforts.
Federal health officials sought to impose such a requirement early in the pandemic, but the effort stalled. In February, seven U.S. carriers announced they would collect passenger information from international travelers on U.S.-bound flights. However, it was up to individuals to voluntarily provide the information. Under the White House's new policy, international travelers will be required to provide their details.
However the decision came about, many across the Atlantic welcomed it.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is set to meet Biden at the White House on Tuesday, tweeted he was "delighted" with the news. British newspapers had reported Monday morning that he planned to press the issue with his U.S. counterpart.
The prime minister said it was a "fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again."
Ylva Johansson, the E.U.'s commissioner for home affairs, said she "welcomes" the decision. Margaritis Schinas, the E.U. Commission's vice president for promoting the European way of life, called the new policy "sound and long-awaited."
"When I met my US counterparts in July in Lisbon I told them that mobility cannot be reserved for the elite alone," he wrote on Twitter. "People need to travel not only officials. Europe the most vaccinated continent in the world."
The change will mean a big boost to the tourism industry. Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said it will ensure that international travel can resume in a manner that will keep people safe and protect jobs.
"We applaud the Biden administration for announcing plans to reunite families and open travel with strict procedures to ensure transportation doesn't aid in the spread of the virus," Nelson said. "International travel is essential to the stability of our jobs and the full recovery of the U.S. airline industry, but recovery is only possible if we remain focused first on safety and health."