Tearful reunions unfolded at JFK airport and US land borders on Monday after the United States lifted its COVID-19 travel restrictions for the first time in 20 months.
Crowded flights from across Europe touched down in the Big Apple and miles-long lines of cars continued to cross over from Canada and Mexico throughout the day.
The severe restrictions, first imposed by the Trump administration in March 2020, had banned access to non-US citizens traveling from 33 countries — including much of Europe — as well as overland entry from Mexico and Canada.
Monday marked the first day fully vaccinated travelers were permitted to enter the US again, with tourists rushing to make long-delayed trips and overseas family members finally able to reconnect with loved ones.
Tears flowed and airline officials applauded at JFK’s arrival hall where relatives embraced each other – and some even met for the first time.
“There’s no words,” Bhavna Patel told Reuters after meeting her one-year-old grandson Kai following months of FaceTime calls.
“How can you describe this feeling?” she added, wiping her eyes.
Patel and her daughter Bindiya were among the hundreds to arrive in New York on the first British Airways flight that left London’s Heathrow airport earlier Monday.
She said all she wanted to do during her 10-day visit was “sit and look” at her grandson.
“I have other relatives in New York, but I said, ‘these 10 days are just for him,’” she said.
Jez Cartwright, 49, was one of the first passengers off the same British Airways flight, telling Reuters upon his arrival: “It’s brilliant to be on a full plane again.”
Flights also arrived from Frankfurt and Paris where travelers boarding planes said they were eager to reunite with family and friends.
Gaye Camara, 40, was among those who boarded at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport en route to see her New York-based husband for the first time since restrictions were enforced last year.
“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” Camara told the Associated Press. “Just talking about it makes me emotional.”
Despite mile-long queues at land borders ahead of the ban lifting, relieved travelers said the lines moved quickly despite the added vaccine checks for entry.
Octavio Alvarez, 43, said it took less than 15 minutes for him to enter the US from Mexico for the first time since February 2020.
Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter Sofia were en route to visit his mother-in-law in California for the first time in two years.
“It’s a big feeling,” he told the Associated Press, adding the emotional costs of the travel ban had been “very high.”
Before sunrise, lines of cars as far as the eye could see were lining up on the US-Mexico border, with the Ciudad Juarez government having to implement a special system to direct the overwhelming surge of traffic.
It included portable toilets on the three bridges crossing into the US “as waiting times of up to four hours are estimated,” the local director of road safety, Cesar Alberto Tapia, told Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, similar scenes were occurring in the north too — with seemingly endless lines of passenger cars and motor homes lining up on the Rainbow Bridge between Niagara Falls in Ontario and New York.
River Robinson excitedly planned a US trip to see her American partner, who wasn’t able to be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago.
“I’m planning to take my baby down for the American Thanksgiving,” Robinson said. “If all goes smoothly at the border, I’ll plan on taking him down as much as I can.”
The lifting of the travel restrictions will be welcomed by many in border towns, which have been economically crippled by the sudden stop of tourism that they relied on.
The US will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the shots approved for emergency use by the WHO — including those not used in the US, such as the AstraZeneca jab given to many in Canada and the UK.
Under-18s are exempt from the new vaccine requirements. Non-tourist travelers from nearly 50 countries with nationwide vaccination rates of less than 10 percent are also eligible for exemption.
With Post Wires