U.S. to Relax Covid-19 Travel Restrictions as Tensions Mount With Allies
The Biden administration is easing a series of Covid-19 travel bans and will require foreign nationals seeking to fly to the U.S. to show proof of vaccination under new rules aimed in part at assuaging mounting frustration among European allies.
The new restrictions would replace a series of travel bans imposed during the Trump administration that limit travel into the U.S. from Europe, China, Iran and Brazil, and were later expanded to include South Africa and India. President Biden has been under pressure from European politicians and major airlines to lift the restrictions.
The announcement came as the U.S. was facing diplomatic blowback in Europe after its withdrawal from Afghanistan and a security agreement the U.S. crafted with Australia and the U.K., which has roiled Washington’s relations with France.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the travel restrictions on Friday with Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the U.S., according to a senior administration official. The official added that diplomatic considerations played a role in the decision to lift the restrictions, but said the policy was guided by science.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden is expected to speak by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron in the coming days. Mr. Biden is scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. European leaders had been planning to press him about lifting the bans.
Asked whether the timing of the U.S. announcement was influenced by diplomatic considerations, Ms. Psaki told reporters on Monday afternoon, “If we were going to make things much easier for ourselves, we would have done it prior to June, when the president had his first foreign trip, or earlier this summer. This is when the process concluded.”
Under the new rules, foreign nationals will be required to show proof of vaccination as well as a negative test for Covid-19 taken within three days of departure to the U.S., Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said Monday.
The new travel policy will go into effect in early November. The White House informed agency officials late last week that it was moving forward with the change, following weeks of internal uncertainty about how it would proceed, according to a person familiar with the matter.
For those coming from countries that have been subject to bans, the new policy is the first opportunity to travel to the U.S. after a year and a half. But it also means that people arriving from countries where travel to the U.S. had been allowed will now have to be vaccinated before arrival.
The new policy was welcomed by Thierry Breton, the European Union’s internal markets commissioner, who was in Washington on Monday to meet with Mr. Zients.
“A logical decision given the success of our EU vaccination campaign,” said the French EU official on Twitter.
According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the percentage of fully vaccinated adults in the EU was 71.8% as of Monday, compared with 65.7% of fully vaccinated adults in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Airlines and other travel companies had pushed for months to ease restrictions that have decimated some of the most lucrative markets, but industry officials said Monday’s announcement was unexpected as recently as last week and details of how the policies will be implemented haven’t yet been worked out.
Travel from the U.S. to Europe jumped this summer when countries began allowing Americans to visit once again, but the traffic didn’t flow both ways because of the continued bans. The number of passenger flights from the U.K. to the U.S. dropped 76% this year so far compared with the same period in 2019 according to Cirium, an aviation data provider. Flights from Europe to the U.S. fell 67% over the same period.
Airline executives have said they would welcome vaccine requirements for international travel if it meant borders would be allowed to reopen. Several airlines on both sides of the Atlantic cheered the announcement Monday, calling it a major milestone that would help spur economic rebound.
“Our customers should now feel the world is reopening to them,” Sean Doyle, chief executive of British Airways, a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, said in a statement.
“Science tells us that vaccinations coupled with testing is the safest way to reopen travel,” a Delta Air Lines Inc. spokesman said. United Airlines Holdings Inc. said in a statement that it is ready to implement the new requirements.
Travel restrictions were one of the Trump administration’s first measures last year to stem the spread of the coronavirus, attempting to keep it out of the U.S. The restrictions bar foreign nationals who have recently spent time in Europe, the U.K., China and certain other countries from entering the U.S.
Then-President Donald Trump had sought to allow travel from Europe, the U.K. and Brazil to resume before he left office, but the incoming Biden administration decided to leave the restrictions in place amid a surge in cases and the arrival of new, more contagious variants last winter.
Mr. Biden had for months resisted calls from European officials and airlines to lift the restrictions. Instead, he put together several working groups that have worked behind the scenes to analyze various options.
The European Union reimposed its travel ban on U.S. nonessential travelers in late August after allowing vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans to come over the summer tourist season since July 1. However, in practice, most EU countries have continued to allow Americans to come to the continent if they can show they have been vaccinated.
U.S. citizens who are fully vaccinated will still have to show that they have tested negative within three days of departure to the U.S. under the new rules, something that has been required since early this year.
Unvaccinated Americans will be subject to more stringent testing requirements and will have to provide proof of a negative test within one day of their travel to the U.S., Mr. Zients said. They will also need to take a Covid-19 test again once they have arrived in the U.S.
The new rules will apply to people traveling into the U.S. by air, according to Mr. Zients. The restrictions don’t apply to travel into the U.S. by land.
As part of the new set of rules, airlines will have to implement systems to be able to conduct contact tracing for all passengers coming to the U.S. That is something carriers had resisted in the first months of the pandemic, but over the ensuing months several have taken steps to collect more contact information from customers on a voluntary basis.
But U.S. airline officials have said they don’t believe vaccination requirements should be implemented for domestic travel, arguing that it would be too logistically difficult to check for proof of vaccination in the short period between frequent domestic flights.