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Coronavirus travel restrictions on Europe lack implementation details, have many exceptions

Mar 13. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Ian Duncan, Lori Aratani, , Michael Laris, Nick Miroff · NATIONAL, WORLD, EUROPE 

The European travel restrictions set to take effect midnight Friday will not apply to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, their families and an array of other travelers, exemptions that make the measures less severe than President Donald Trump's initial announcement suspending "all travel" from most of the continent to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Many of the details of how the restrictions would be implemented remained unclear Thursday, with federal agencies saying only that they were working on their plans. But U.S. airlines nonetheless began announcing reductions in service, even as they vowed to ensure that Americans could get home.

Under the restrictions, which blindsided European leaders, travelers will be routed to 10 to 15 designated U.S. international airports, likely to include most of the large commercial hubs that already receive those flights, according to a senior administration official involved with the planning. U.S. border officials and contracted medical personnel will screen those passengers for symptoms, but they will not be tested for the coronavirus, the official said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said only that: "At this time, we are working quickly with our partners to operationalize a plan which will outline where these travelers will be routed and what the screening process will be. We will share more information when it is available."

Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement late Wednesday that the restrictions on 26 European nations would be similar to those already in place for foreign travelers who had been to China and Iran, where coronavirus outbreaks have been severe. Wolf said he would issue more-detailed guidelines in the coming days to explain how the measures will alter travel during the next 30 days.

Although the restrictions are similar to those imposed on China and Iran, their effects - and those of a Wednesday bulletin from the State Department urging Americans to reconsider all international travel - will be more widely felt. The moves are probably will add to the pain the aviation industry has been feeling since the beginning of the outbreak.

Normal passenger traffic from the European countries dwarfs that from China: About 12,000 passengers each day arrived in the United States from China in the first nine months of last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For the countries affected by the European restrictions, the figure was 66,000.

While Trump's restrictions on European travelers have little precedent in the modern era, they are not as sweeping as a suspension of "all travel," as Trump announced in his address to the nation from the Oval Office on Wednesday night.

"In January and February, the administration issued similar travel restrictions on individuals who had been in China and Iran," Wolf said. "That action proved to be effective in slowing the spread of the virus to the U.S., while public health officials prepared."

The proclamation will ban tourists and other short-term visitors, as well as immigrant visa holders. But it exempts a broad range of other travelers: the parents or legal guardians of U.S. citizens and green-card holders under age 21, children in the process of being adopted, the family members of U.S. service members and "any alien whose entry would not pose a significant risk of introducing, transmitting, or spreading the virus, as determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, through the CDC Director or his designee," among others. 

The president made little mention of those exceptions in his address Wednesday night, and there were reports early Thursday of panicked Americans arriving at European airports fearing they would not be able to return home.

"To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days," Trump said in his address. "There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings, and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing. These restrictions will also not apply to the United Kingdom," Trump said.

White House officials later clarified that commercial goods will be exempted as well.

In a conversation with reporters Thursday, Trump said he would consider domestic travel restrictions, if needed. When asked whether travel restrictions in states such as Washington and California had been discussed, the president said they had not, but he left open the possibility that such actions could be taken.

"Is it is a possibility?" he said. "Yes. If somebody gets a little bit out of control, if an area gets too hot. You see what they are doing in New Rochelle, which is - which is good, frankly. It's the right thing."

A spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, whose state has been hit hard by the virus, said officials have "good communications with the vice president and other federal officials" and have not been told the government is recommending travel restrictions to the state.

"It sounds like the president said it in an off-hand way as a possibility,"communications director Tara Lee said, adding that there was no need to discuss "potential impacts as part of what might happen, down the line, possibly." 

"We hope that the steps the governor is taking will help to slow the spread," Lee said.

Britain was exempted from the Europe restrictions because of its long-standing ties to the United States, according to the government senior official, and because its health-care system is perceived to be more effective than those of the ban-affected nations.

Officials at airports that see the highest passenger volumes from Europe said they were still working to understand the presidential order. And Customs and Border Protection, the agency that processes arriving passengers, said in a statement only that it was "aware" of the new order and working with DHS on how to implement it. 

Doug Yakel, a spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, said staff members there were in a "wait and see mode."

Airlines adjusted their schedules. American and United airlines announced that they would cap fares for travelers seeking to return to the United States before the ban takes effect. But with many people traveling for spring break, it may prove difficult to book seats.

After travel restrictions were put into place for travel from China, many carriers suspended direct flights.

American Airlines serves seven airports in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, It said the restrictions will affect 14 daily flights but did not provide detail on what those effects might be.

United said it will continue to operate its regular schedule between Europe and the Untied States through March 19.

Delta Air Lines said that after Friday it will suspend flights from several U.S. cities to Paris and Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, European officials strongly condemned Trump's decision to severely restrict travel from their countries, saying they were blindsided by the sudden move that many saw as politically motivated.

In a short statement - rare in its directness - the European Union expressed exasperation.

"The Coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action," the statement read, co-signed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.

"The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation."

Across the 26 nations hit by the ban, there were 21,080 active cases of coronavirus as of Thursday morning, and 952 deaths, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University. Italy was a hot spot of the pandemic, with more than half of the active cases - 10,590 - and the vast majority of deaths, 827.

Britain had 430 active cases and eight deaths, while Ireland had 42 active cases and one death. 

Some in Europe wondered whether Britain and Ireland were exempted because they contain Trump-owned properties.

In any case, the decision appeared to confound even leaders of the British government and former U.S. homeland security officials, who said that scientific evidence did not support travel restrictions.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, said airlines also appeared to have been caught off guard by the announcement and were scrambling Thursday to figure out how to adjust schedules to meet the restrictions.

"They got no advance notice from the White House," Harteveldt said. "The scope of this as well as the scale took the airline industry on both sides of the Atlantic by surprise." 

The restrictions were announced as the aviation industry was already reeling from the impact of the ban on travelers from China. 

A report released Thursday by the Airports Council International - North America, an advocacy group, projected that U.S. airports will lose an estimated $3.7 billion in revenue this year due to drops in flights and passenger traffic tied to the coronavirus. It anticipates a 22% drop in passenger traffic for the first six months of the year, which is about 100 million passenger enplanements. 

Given that Europe is a significantly larger market than China, those losses could be further magnified even if the ban is only in place for 30 days.

According to the International Air Transport Association, there are about 550 flights per day between the U.S. and the Schengen Area, the geographical region covered by the ban.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's chief executive and director general, said that while governments should take measures they believe are necessary to contain the virus, they should be mindful that those decisions could have broad economic consequences.

"In normal times, air transport is a catalyst for economic growth and development," de Juniac said in a statement. "Suspending travel on such a broad scale will create negative consequences across the economy. Governments must recognize this and be ready to support."

IATA said the measures taken by the U.S. government will add to the financial pressures. According to IATA's analysis, the total value of the U.S.-Schengen market in 2019 was $20.6 billion. Germany, France and Italy probably will be most affected by the ban.

Despite the spread of the virus, which has infected people in 114 countries, the World Health Organization had advised against travel restrictions to countries where outbreaks have occurred. 

In guidance issued last month, the WHO said that if such measures are taken, they should be in place briefly and must "be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves."

Experts outside the U.S. government have questioned the usefulness of such restrictions.

But pressed on Capitol Hill on Thursday on whether they would have a significant impact on community spread of the virus within the United States, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said "the answer is a firm 'yes.' "

Fauci said 70% of new infections worldwide are coming from Europe "seeding other countries." He said 30 U.S. states have recently been affected by travel-related infections from the continent.

"So it was pretty compelling that we needed to turn off the source from that region," Fauci said. China was initially "the seed" of infections in the United States, he said: "But the dynamics of the outbreak changed. It shifted from China to the rest of the world, to Europe to the rest of the world.

 

 

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