The United States announced a new international air travel system Monday, opening travel to all foreign nationals vaccinated in early November, including those currently impacted by the US travel ban.
“This vaccination requirement uses the best tools 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 demonstrate that they are highly effective, including against delta variants, and the new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Travelers must present proof of full vaccination before boarding a plane bound for the US. COVID-19 testing will also continue to be required within three days of departure and proof of a negative result must be presented. Improved contact tracing and concealment will also be required, but there will be no quarantine mandate.
The new policy also adds stricter testing requirements for unvaccinated US travelers, who need to be tested within one day of departure and again upon arrival.
Zients said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release a list of vaccinations received before the new policy takes effect, as well as a contact tracing order that requires airlines to collect information such as the phone numbers and email addresses of all travelers bound for the US. .
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“This will allow the CDC and state and local public health officials to follow up on arriving travelers and those in their vicinity because of a potential exposure to COVID-19 or other pathogens,” Zients said. “(It) will also strengthen our public health surveillance system against future public health threats.”
Americans who are vaccinated 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 non-essential travel has been in place since early 2020, starting with China and extending to visitors from the UK, Republic of Ireland, 29 regions of Europe’s Schengen area, Iran, Brazil, South Africa and India.
European Union Ambassador to the US Stavros Lambrinidis hinted at the decision on Twitter early Monday, before sharing the news: “Travel ban lifted! Europeans who have been vaccinated and tested before their return flight can travel to the US from November, just like Americans who have been vaccinated today are allowed to travel to the EU.”
Slow to open US
The US has been one of the slowest countries to lift its travel restrictions. While Canada reopened its land borders to US travelers in early August, the US has not announced when it will relax its land border restrictions. And even as European countries eased travel restrictions on US travelers in early summer, the United States travel ban remained in place.
In mid-July, as the country was under increasing pressure from European capitals and travel industry leaders to lift travel bans, President Joe Biden said his response team was reviewing travel restrictions and suggested changes would be announced in the coming days. White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted later that month that there was an “ongoing working group” focused on how to reopen international travel to the US.
But as COVID-19 cases started to spike once again, the government turned around and announced that travel restrictions would remain in place.
“Given where we are today … with the delta variant, we will maintain the current travel restrictions for several reasons,” Psaki said at a press conference in late July.
The US has reported more COVID-19 deaths in September than in all of August, with deaths now averaging nearly 2,000 per day, according to an analysis of Johns Hopkins USA TODAY data.
‘Travel ban is absolutely ridiculous’
In recent months, countries on US travel bans – 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 that US international travelers now face.
Critics and health experts have also questioned the effectiveness of the travel ban, especially after the US faces a fourth wave of COVID-19 with the mandate in place.
When the number of COVID-19 cases is high, “travel bans are absolutely ridiculous,” Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, told USA TODAY. “We’ve got more than enough virus circulating.”
Hassig said the new travel policy was “very reasonable” and was a “substantial and relevant step forward” but could be strengthened by a quarantine mandate.
“I’d like to see a three-day quarantine upon arrival, whether you return an American citizen or a foreigner … especially with the delta still circulating that much,” he said. Hassig noted that it was possible for travelers to become infected the day before the trip, which may be too early to show up on post-arrival tests.
Travel industry, other countries ‘delighted’ by announcement
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday on Twitter that he was “delighted” to hear that a travel ban would be imposed on vaccinated British residents, and called the new travel policy a “fantastic boost to business and trade.”
US Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said the new policies would help revive the American economy.
“This is a major turning point in managing the virus and will accelerate the recovery of millions of travel-related jobs that have been lost due to international travel restrictions,” Dow said in a statement Monday.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants across 17 airlines, said the new policy “only improves health and safety” in air travel.
“We commend the Biden Administration for announcing plans to reunite families and open travel with strict procedures to ensure transportation does not aid the spread of the virus,” AFA President Sara Nelson said in a statement Monday. “International travel is critical to the stability of our jobs and the full recovery of the US aviation industry, but recovery is only possible if we remain focused first on safety and health.”