Why is the US still restricting travel from Europe?

Still closed.
Still closed.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Europe is officially open.

The European Union has advised its members to lift travel restrictions that have barred travelers from the US, and individual nations are expected to begin dropping quarantine requirements and other limitations soon.

But the US isn’t returning the favor. Travelers from Europe—as well as the UK, China, Iran, India, and Brazil—are prohibited from entering the US within 14 days of leaving those destinations.

The measure had been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, and has yet to be revised, even as rates of transmission dropped in the EU and large parts of the population received at least the first dose of vaccine. So as things stand now, the rationale behind maintaining the restrictions is rather unclear.

Months of forced separation

Those traveling from restricted countries who hold a green card, or are American citizens, are allowed to enter the US with a negative Covid-19 test taken within two days of traveling. They still have to quarantine for up to 10 days, depending on the country they left from, the port of arrival, and their Covid-19 test after landing. Everyone else, however, is barred from entry. This includes visa holders who live, work, and pay taxes in the US.

Tragic tales of forced separations—people who were unable to see dying loved ones, or have had no way to see their partners and children for more than a year—have been accumulating in the past 15 months. With the hashtags #loveisnottourism and #liftthetravelban, the affected community has been sharing their stories, hoping to get the US government to consider exceptions at least for holders of visas that allow extended stays in the US.

Arbitrary rules

The shape of the Covid-19 pandemic has changed a lot since travel restrictions were put in place in its early days, to the point that the selection of banned countries looks arbitrary.

The number of cases in EU countries has been steadily declining in the past few months, and the vaccination drive has finally picked up speed. Close to half the population in European countries has received at least one dose, and over 20% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Yet—other than in a few exceptional cases—US visa holders from the EU still aren’t able to travel to the US directly. They could, however, spend two weeks in, say, the Dominican Republic (or another country not on the restricted list), and be allowed to enter the US that way. This despite the fact that covid cases in the Dominican Republic are currently high, and vaccination rates low.

The corporate push

Individuals aren’t alone in asking for a revision of travel rules. Airlines, for one, have seen their operations dramatically curtailed in the past 15 months, and have been demanding action to allow safe travel. “The time to plan for and chart a defined roadmap to reopen international travel is now,” several travel industry groups wrote to the White House in March. At the time, the group asked for a roadmap for reopening be put into place by May 1.

It didn’t happen, though the administration said in May that it was considering revising the restriction. Earlier this month, national security advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed that there is no timeline yet for reopening. Changes could happen overnight, as it was for the mask mandate, or take months—all of which is leaving millions in limbo.