European governments are growing increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration for refusing to lift travel rules that prevent most of their citizens from traveling to the U.S., citing inconsistent rules, economic costs and an outdated strategy for halting the coronavirus.
The U.S. has scrapped the bulk of its domestic pandemic restrictions, but international travel has remained buttoned up more tightly amid the surge in cases of the highly contagious delta variant.
Diplomats say that the Biden administration has given no indication when it might reverse the rules banning travel from the 26-nation Schengen zone months after the creation of a working group to address the issue, even as vaccination rates tick up and scientific evidence suggests little efficacy in the ban.
The issue is sure to come up Thursday when Angela Merkel begins what likely will be her last official visit in Washington as German chancellor. European visitations to the U.S. in May were still 95% below pre-pandemic levels in the same month two years earlier, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
One European diplomat, who asked not to be identified discussing his nation’s anger with the U.S., said the situation is now desperate, and anger is rising. While Europe eased many restrictions on American travelers in June, the U.S. has refused to do so, essentially squelching the summer tourist season. The ban is also complicating life for business travelers, students and others.
Inconsistent on Science
More broadly, critics argue that the ban on non-U.S. citizens traveling to the U.S. within 14 days of being in Europe — which President Donald Trump imposed in March 2020 — is inconsistent with the Biden administration’s insistence on following the science.
It’s especially galling to European governments and their citizens who were so thrilled by President Joe Biden’s “America’s Back” approach and his insistence that the U.S. wants to work closely with its allies on the continent including France and Germany. Surely, they argue, the Biden administration can be more nimble in its approach rather than simply extending the blanket ban imposed under Trump.
“In a democracy such as this one and with the alliance of democracies that Biden is hoping for, this arbitrary randomness of the travel ban and the discriminatory nature of it, I feel that’s a stain,” said Celia Belin, a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
Belin had written a paper in May urging the U.S. to drop travel restrictions on Europe. For her, it’s personal: She holds a visa to the U.S. and going home to France meant taking a risk that she might be stuck there indefinitely. In the end she gambled on it, hoping that she would qualify for what’s known as a national interest exception to get back to the U.S.
Lobbying for Months
Beleaguered U.S. airlines are also getting frustrated since transatlantic routes tend to be highly profitable.
“We’ve been lobbying for a number of months to open corridors between the U.S. and U.K. and Europe and the U.S.,” Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Ed Bastian said Tuesday in an interview. “U.S. travelers who have been vaccinated can go to Europe, and they are. It’s unfortunate we can’t bring Europeans back into our country.”
He said the airline has provided data to the federal government “on the science and safety of opening up travel between the U.S. and the U.K. and Europe. It’s out of our hands and all we can do is continue to give our insights and our learnings” to agencies charged with making the decision.
A European official, who also asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said that resuming travel in both directions is supported by science, given the current vaccination rates and continuing health measure in place in Europe. Diplomats are befuddled that the Biden administration hasn’t adopted a more nimble approach with policies such as contact tracing or requirements for vaccines.
The European official said it’s getting increasingly difficult for European companies to maintain and build on their investments in the U.S. economy if business travel remains suspended, which could lead to lost jobs. The EU continues to follow the health situation closely on both sides of the Atlantic and adjustments can made to travel rules in a quick and coordinated manner, the official said.
EU Versus Indonesia
Among the biggest frustrations is the apparent lack of logic behind the U.S. travel ban. Along with the Schengen zone, the U.S. has banned travel from places where coronavirus is running rampant such as India and Brazil. Not on the list are other nations with high infection rates, such as Mexico or Indonesia.
The State Department has cast the issue as primarily a decision for the White House, which declined to comment.
“We’re following the science and following the recommendations of our health authorities,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent television interview. “I can’t put a date on it. I can tell you we’re working very, very actively on it, because we would like nothing better than to see travel pick up.”
The problem is, according to some epidemiologists, the science of the travel bans doesn’t hold up.
“I have for a long time regarded the travel restrictions with some skepticism,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University. “I thought it was akin to preventing people from pouring a bucket of water into a swimming pool. We have rampant Covid in our country.”
While officials had initially hoped to lift the restrictions this summer, the surge in the coronavirus’s delta variant has made an easing of the travel ban increasingly unlikely, even though the variant is already widespread in the U.S. Indeed, the delta variant now accounts for more than half of U.S. cases, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A July 7 letter signed by a bipartisan group of 75 members of the U.S. Congress urged the administration to lift the travel restrictions, arguing that studies have shown it’s unlikely inbound travelers will carry or transmit the virus. They said keeping entry restrictions in place would result in the loss of 1.1 million jobs and $175 billion by the end of the year.
“They keep saying follow the science, follow the science — and we agree,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association. “These policies don’t really fit with what the science is telling us right now, and the policies are really holding back or economic recovery.”
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