Lobbyists, lawmakers and border mayors are imploring the Biden administration to ease restrictions on nonessential travel put in place 18 months ago at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But officials haven’t budged even as other countries gradually open to Americans.
A tangled web of Covid-19 border restrictions has limited who can travel to the US. One of the rules bars migrants from seeking asylum. Others have effectively halted tourism from abroad. And restrictions on cross-border travel have been renewed monthly, with the next deadline fast approaching on Saturday.
“I would say the pleasantries for taking the time to meet with us have gone out the window and we go right to the meat of the question. After one and a half years, we get right to it. We want an explanation why,” said Peter Vlitas, executive vice president of global supplier relations at Internova Travel Group.
Administration officials are still weighing next steps and whether nonessential restrictions, as well as other limits on travel, can be eased at all amid concerns about the Delta variant, though the White House has indicated it’s not likely anytime soon.
White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said agency working groups are looking at how to reopen the borders. “The interagency working groups are currently developing a policy process, and we will be ready when it is the right time to consider reopening travel. And that’ll be guided, as always, by the science and the public health,” Zients said earlier this month. American officials have also partnered with representatives from the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico to discuss reopening.
CNN previously reported that the administration was developing a plan to mandate vaccinations for almost all foreign visitors to the US, though a final plan had not been determined.
Canada, meanwhile, did just that. Fully vaccinated US citizens and permanent residents currently residing in the US are allowed into Canada as of last week, but vaccinated Canadians can’t cross the land border with the US if not for an essential purpose.
Marco Mendicino, Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, told CNN the country is respecting the US decision-making process and timing of its decisions. “In the meantime, what we’ll do is keep the line of communication open,” he said.
But Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents New York communities along the northern border like Niagara and Buffalo, argued that the public health guidance and limits on the US land borders are inconsistent.
“There’s not only inconsistencies but there’s direct conflict with what we’re told to do by government and public health officials and the policy on the Canadian border,” Higgins, said.
Covid-19 hospitalizations in the United States have been growing, though vaccination rates in the US have increased over recent weeks, a trend that experts say needs to continue to curb the current surge of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has called it “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Still, more of Europe opened up this summer to US leisure travelers, especially the fully vaccinated, adding to the frustration of those in the travel industry, who argue the US needs to reciprocate or at least adjust to the current landscape.
“We’ve been frozen in time with restrictions for 18 months that have almost nothing to do with what’s happening on the ground in these countries,” Stewart Verdery, a lobbyist working on the issue and a former Department of Homeland Security official under George W. Bush’s administration.
“We believe the science says we should be able to reopen,” echoed Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the US Travel Association.
Limits dating from March 2020
The travel restrictions were put in place in March 2020, when many countries were shutting down their borders to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The restrictions included the United Kingdom and the “Schengen” group of 26 mostly European Union countries that lie within an area stretching from Iceland to Greece.
The CEO of US airline JetBlue said earlier this month that he’s “frustrated” with US Covid-19 travel restrictions. Speaking to CNN’s Richard Quest at the launch of a new flight from New York to London, Robin Hayes said “the US government should take a risk-based approach to travel.”
While the situation has evolved, with vaccination rates increasing and borders gradually opening, there’s no clarity over the factors driving the decision-making for restrictions to remain in place – or eventually be lifted – in the United States.
“It’s been very hard to get any type of real metrics, road maps, guidelines, anything out of the White House,” Verdery said. “They tell us it’s based on science.”
Higgins, who serves as co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, said there’ll be an “uproar” if nonessential restrictions on the US northern and southern borders are renewed this month.
Among the complicating factors is whether lifting one set of restrictions could undercut the argument for leaving others in place. The Biden administration, for example, continues to lean on a public health authority, known as Title 42, invoked under former President Donald Trump to allow authorities to turn away migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border. That too, officials argue, is based on public health.
But in the absence of guidance on next steps, the travel industry and lawmakers, among others, are left clamoring for answers.
“The ultimate goal is to look for easing of restrictions on nonessential travel,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. “Short of that, specifics on what we can, need or must do to achieve that.”