Biden keeps US travel ban on Europeans despite pleas for easing it

While Europe eased many restrictions on American travelers in June, the US has refused to do so. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - European governments are growing increasingly frustrated with the Joe Biden administration for refusing to lift travel rules that prevent most of their citizens from travelling to the United States, citing inconsistent rules, economic costs and an outdated strategy for halting the coronavirus.

The United States 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 on Thursday (July 15) when German Chancellor Angela Merkel begins what will likely be her last official visit in Washington.

European visitations to the US in May were still 95 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in the same month two years earlier, according to the US Travel Association.

One European diplomat, who asked not to be identified discussing his nation's anger with the US, said the situation is now desperate, and anger is rising.

While Europe eased many restrictions on American travellers in June, the US has refused to do so, essentially squelching the summer tourist season.

The ban is also complicating life for business travellers, students and others.

Inconsistent on science

More broadly, critics argue that the ban on non-US citizens travelling to the US within 14 days of being in Europe - which former president Donald Trump imposed in March 2020 - is inconsistent with the Biden administration's insistence on following the science.

It is especially galling to European governments and their citizens, who had been so thrilled by President Biden's "America's Back" approach and his insistence that the US 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 Mr 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 Dr Celia Belin, a visiting fellow in the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Dr Belin had written a paper in May urging the US to drop travel restrictions on Europe.

For her, it is personal: She holds a visa to the US 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 is known as a national interest exception to get back to the US.

Lobbying for months

Beleaguered US 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 US and UK and Europe and the US," Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian said on Tuesday in an interview. "US travellers who have been vaccinated can go to Europe, and they are. It's unfortunate we can't bring Europeans back into our country."

The airline has provided data to the federal government on the science and safety of opening up travel between the US and Britain and Europe. "It's out of our hands and all we can do is continue to give our insights and our learnings," he said.

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 measures in place in Europe.

Diplomats are befuddled that the Biden administration has not adopted a more nimble approach with policies such as contact tracing or requirements for vaccines.

The European official said it is getting increasingly difficult for European companies to maintain and build on their investments in the US 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 US travel ban.

Along with the Schengen zone, the US has banned travel from places where Covid-19 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 does not hold up.

'Rampant Covid'

"I have for a long time regarded the travel restrictions with some scepticism," said Dr 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-19 in our country."

While officials had initially hoped to lift the restrictions this summer, the surge in the coronavirus' Delta variant has made an easing of the travel ban increasingly unlikely, even though the strain is already widespread in the US.

Indeed, the Delta variant now accounts for more than half of US cases, according to estimates by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

A July 7 letter signed by a bipartisan group of 75 members of the US Congress urged the administration to lift the travel restrictions, arguing that studies have shown that it is unlikely inbound travellers will carry or transmit the virus.

They said keeping entry restrictions in place would result in the loss of 1.1 million jobs and US$175 billion (S$236 billion) by the end of the year.

"They keep saying follow the science, follow the science - and we agree," said Ms Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice-president of public affairs and policy at the US Travel Association. "These policies don't really fit with what the science is telling us right now, and the policies are really holding back our economic recovery."

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