U.S. COVID travel restrictions are slowing growth, new hires—and love

August 17, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC

Shopping in Paris, basking in the late-summer Mykonos sun, and even kayaking down the crystal-clear rivers of Calgary are all back in the cards for travel-starved Americans. Europeans and Canadians who are desperate to do business and see loved ones in the U.S., however, still have to wait.

That is because while Canada, the EU, and the U.K. have all reopened their borders to the nonessential travels of U.S. citizens who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the U.S. has yet to reciprocate—a move that is causing economic and personal pain and leaving people and businesses scratching their heads.

Many today question the logic of continuing what one European trade group calls the “incomprehensible” U.S. travel ban at a time when Europe, Canada, and the U.K., all have higher vaccination rates and lower rising case numbers than the U.S. The questions from affected countries are especially pointed because the U.S. is currently barring only non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have visited the U.K., the 26 Schengen nations in Europe, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran, and Brazil.

“It doesn’t make sense to see pictures of Lollapalooza and seeing tens of thousands of people [in the U.S.] without wearing a mask, dancing and having lots of fun, and I literally can’t sit in my boyfriend’s house,” says Anastasia, a project officer from Italy who has been separated from her boyfriend in the U.S. for the entire 16 months of the pandemic.

The last U.S. message came on July 21, when the Department of Homeland Security said that the U.S. would extend restrictions on nonessential travel at land and ferry crossings with Canada and Mexico through Aug. 21. While a White House official said on Aug. 4 that the Biden administration was developing a plan to allow passage for fully vaccinated foreign visitors, there is little news on when they will be allowed to enter.

Slower growth

The U.S. travel restriction is keeping global businesses out, putting non–U.S.-owned businesses at an unfair competitive disadvantage, says Allan Hogarth, executive director of the Scottish North American Business Council.

Many of the businesses that work with the council, which promotes trade and investment between Scotland and North America, have felt the crunch. One of the sectors most affected by the ban has been the drinks industry, which relies on networks and personal contacts to expand.

John Hunt, co-owner of Scottish craft brewer Broughton Ales, is looking to expand his team and market in the U.S. But, he notes, “if you’re going to put time and money into someone, you really need to meet them and ultimately spend time with them.”

Additionally, he adds, it is crucial to see the North American market for himself in order to measure the competition and see what kind of packaging and prices others are using so he can make informed decisions. Hunt notes that the U.S. ban isn’t causing him losses, but it is slowing growth, as he is “holding fire” when it comes to entering a new market.

Iain Stirling, a cofounder of Arbikie Distillery who is working to bring his environmentally friendly gin to the Whole Foods supermarket chain and the Jean-Georges restaurants in the U.S., is finding it difficult, too. He notes there is an excess level of formality to Microsoft Teams and Zoom, as they run on work time and in a meeting setting. “Face-to-face meetings with people are so important,” he says.

New business on hold

Many in the manufacturing industry are also struggling to keep up with the bans and have called on the U.S. to clarify the process.

In July, Germany’s mechanical engineering industry association (VDMA) sent a letter to the U.S. embassy in Berlin, urging the country to allow European citizens to travel more easily across the Atlantic. “It is incomprehensible that the Schengen states are still classified as high-risk areas by the United States,” the letter said.

“How do you demonstrate how your technology works? How do you inspect the technology? Would you spend a million dollars on an important piece of equipment if you can’t see how it works?” asks Andrew Adair, the VDMA’s trade adviser for North America.

Adair notes that German mechanical engineering companies are being affected in two ways. First, the ban has created a new layer of bureaucracy for companies needing to get in that makes the entry process “confusing” and “intimidating” even when it is possible.

Second, he says, not being able to attend trade shows can impact future sales. Huge industrial trade shows enable businesses to showcase new technologies, discuss trends in the industry, and network. “You can’t really re-create that through video,” says Adair.

“Talk to a trade show anywhere in the U.S., they’re not happy that half of their visitors can’t be there,” he says.

Overdue on fresh talent

Another crucial issue is recruitment. Jim Rae, chief executive of U.K.-based Docs24, a tech startup that manages documents and content for businesses, has been trying to hire a team in the U.S. to expand overseas.

Faced with a travel situation he calls “not ideal,” Rae has decided to hire someone in the U.K. to bide time until the team can be built in the U.S.—instead of recruiting someone he has never met. It is “not the culture” of his business to not have someone out there to meet and support newcomers, he says, and he finds “people are getting Zoomed out” from speaking almost exclusively online.

In addition, the travel ban has added to the “stress and strain” on the U.K. team, he says, because they have to work difficult hours or miss half the U.S. workday.

Distance and love

Relationships torn apart by the travel bans are a different—though comparable—beast.

Both the hashtag #loveisnottourism and Twitter names that display a flag, a heart, and another flag—to symbolize the nationalities of couples separated by the ban—are commonly used in protest.

Anastasia, the project officer from Italy with a boyfriend based in Boston, just came home from Costa Rica, where she saw her boyfriend for the first time after 16 months of the pandemic. But neither can take time off from work anytime soon, and they don’t know when they will meet again.

“I really would like to hear an explanation from somebody,” she says, adding that the worst thing about the ban is not knowing when it will end. “Not knowing what ‘soon’ means is the most heartbreaking.”

Others are just left venting on Twitter.

The ‘third country route’

Many couples have taken the “third country route”: meaning they find a place that accepts an incoming flight from the U.K. or EU and spend 14 days in quarantine at a hotel before entering the U.S. from this route.

This, however, comes at a cost.

Desperate to reunite with her partner, whom she hadn’t seen in nine months, Aron—an American with an English boyfriend—found that the Maldives was one of the few places that offered an incoming flight from London and an outgoing flight to Chicago. Her boyfriend then got on a flight to the remote South Asian country and quarantined in a hotel for 14 days. He then tried to board a flight to the U.S., only to be told he still needed two more days in quarantine. Two days later he took a flight with a stopover in Dubai, all to spend five days with Aron in Wisconsin, before going back home to the U.K.

All in all, the trip cost $7,000.

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