The United States announced a new international air travel system Monday, opening travel for all vaccinated foreign nationals in early November, including those currently impacted by the US travel ban.
“This vaccination requirement deploys the best tool we have in our arsenal to keep people safe and prevent the spread of the virus,” said White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. “Vaccines continue to show that they’re highly effective, including against the delta variant, and the new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Travelers will need to show proof of full vaccination prior to boarding US-bound planes. A COVID-19 test will also continue to be required within three days of departure and proof of negative results must be shown. Enhanced contact tracing and masking will also be required, but there will be no quarantine mandate.
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The new policy also adds more stringent testing requirements for unvaccinated US travelers, who will need to test within one day of departure and once again after arrival.
Zients said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release a list of accepted vaccinations before the new policy goes into effect, as well as a contact tracing order that requires airlines to collect information such as phone numbers and email addresses of all US-bound travelers .
“This will enable CDC and state and local public health officials to follow up with inbound travelers and those around them as someone has potentially been exposed to COVID-19 or other pathogens,” Zients said. “(It) will also strengthen our public health surveillance system against any future public health threats.”
Vaccinated Americans are still subject to the CDC’s requirement, put in place in January, to test negative for COVID-19 no more than three days before an international flight to the US
The US ban on nonessential travel has been in place since early 2020, starting with China and expanding to visitors from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the 29 regions in the European Schengen region, Iran, Brazil, South Africa and India.
European Union Ambassador to the US Stavros Lambrinidis hinted at the decision on Twitter earlier Monday, before sharing the news: “Travel ban lifted! Vaccinated, pre-flight tested Europeans will again be able to travel to the US from November, just as vaccinated Americans are today allowed to travel to the EU.”
Slow to open the US
The US has been among the slowest countries to lift its travel restrictions. While Canada reopened its land borders to US travelers in early August, the US has yet to announce when it will ease its land border restrictions. And even as European countries eased travel restrictions on US travelers in the early summer months, the United States’ travel ban held fast.
In mid-July, as the country was under mounting pressure from European capitals and travel industry leaders to lift the travel ban, President Joe Biden said his response team was reviewing the travel restrictions and suggested changes would be announced in the coming days. White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted later that month that there were “ongoing working groups” focused on how to reopen international travel into the US
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But as COVID-19 cases began to spike once again, the administration pivoted and announced that travel restrictions would remain in place.
“Given where we are today … with the delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point for a few reasons,” Psaki said at a press briefing in late July.
The US has already reported more COVID-19 deaths in September than in all of August, with deaths now averaging nearly 2,000 per day, according to USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.
‘Travel bans are really kind of silly’
In recent months, countries in the US travel ban – including Italy, France, Spain and Sweden – have tightened entry requirements for travelers from the US due to rising COVID-19 cases. Quarantine mandates, vaccine requirements and outright bans are some of the restrictions international US travelers now face.
Critics and health experts have also questioned the effectiveness of the travel bans, especially after the US took on its fourth surge of COVID-19 with the mandates in place.
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When COVID-19 case counts are high, “travel bans are really kind of silly,” Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, told USA TODAY. “We’ve already got more than enough virus circulating.”
Hassig said the new travel policy “makes a lot of sense” and is a “substantial and relevant step forward” but could be strengthened with a quarantine mandate.
“I would have liked to have seen a three-day quarantine upon arrival, whether you’re returning American or foreign national … especially with delta still circulating as much as it is,” she said. Hassig noted that it’s possible for travelers to get infected the day before travel, which could be too soon to appear on a post-arrival test.
Travel industry, other countries ‘delighted’ about announcement
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday on Twitter that he was “delighted” to hear that the travel ban would drop on vaccinated UK residents, and called the new travel policy a “fantastic boost for business and trade.”
US Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said the new policy should help revive the American economy.
“This is a major turning point in the management of the virus and will accelerate the recovery of the millions of travel-related jobs that have been lost due to international travel restrictions,” Dow said in a Monday statement.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, said the new policy “only increases (the) health and safety” in air travel.
“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,” AFA President Sara Nelson said in a Monday statement. “International travel is essential to the stability of our jobs and the full recovery of the US airline industry, but recovery is only possible if we remain focused first on safety and health.”