The U.S. will lift air travel restrictions for foreign nationals who are fully vaccinated, with the Biden administration targeting early November for foreign travel to resume for the first time in more than a year.
The head of the White House’s Covid-19 Response Team, Jeff Zients, announced Monday that foreign nationals must show proof of vaccination and proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken three days prior to boarding an airplane. Zients said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention will determine which vaccines will be accepted.
“This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans and international air travel safe,” Zients said. “By requiring foreign nationals to be fully vaccinated in order to fly to the United States and in implementing additional strict safety protocols, we will protect Americans here at home and enhance the safety of international travel.”
“This is based on individuals rather than a country-based approach,” he added.
Though Monday’s announcement marks a watershed moment for air travel in the Covid era, America’s land borders remain closed to all but essential travel.
Contact tracing coming
Zients said in the coming days, the CDC will issue a contact tracing order that will require airlines to collect information from U.S.-bound travelers, including their phone number and email address to act as a “public health surveillance system.” That will give the CDC, state and local health officials the ability to follow up with travelers if they have potentially been exposed to Covid or other diseases.
Last week, the agency filed a notice with the Office of Management and Budget to collect and transmit information for passengers and crew arriving in the U.S. A decision is pending review. Zients said the system will allow officials to keep this information for 30 days but that specifics are still being finalized.
Quarantine for vaccinated travelers coming into U.S. will not be required, he said.
Additionally, any unvaccinated Americans returning to the U.S. will be subject to stricter testing requirements, Zients said. “They will need to test within one day of departure and will be required to test again post their arrival.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing that those Americans wanting to return home from abroad while the travel ban has been in place will still have to keep safety in mind, even if they are partially vaccinated.
Psaki said those individuals will also be required to show they’ve purchased a viral test that they will take after arriving in the U.S. The testing would “apply to children as well,” she said.
No domestic airline vaccine mandates — yet
Any new guidance on air travel stateside — such as the potential for mandatory vaccines for travelers — is still under discussion. Zients reiterated the administration’s current mask mandate policy for aircraft and in airports was extended through Jan. 18 amid rising Delta variant cases across the country.
Separately, Zients said there has been no change to the land border policy with Canada or Mexico; the Department of Homeland Security last month extended non-essential border travel through Sept. 21. Zients said those restrictions will be extended another month.
“We don’t have any updates or prediction sat this point in time but obviously we’re continuing to consider … how we can return to a place of travel and people being able to move from country to country, including at our land borders,” Psaki said.
The news has been highly anticipated within the airline and travel industries, which have struggled to make inroads amid the pandemic and have expressed frustration over protocols that often vary from country to country.
“This is a major turning point in the management of the virus and will accelerate the recovery of the millions of travel-related jobs that have been lost due to international travel restrictions,” the U.S. Travel Association said following the announcement, and gave particular kudos to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. In July, Raimondo said she was advocating to loosen some of the restrictions placed on international travelers.
Airlines for America, the trade group for the major U.S. airlines, for example, for months has publicly called for a science-based framework to accelerate reinstituting international travel.
“What’s hindering travel right now? Travel restrictions,” Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy for A4A, said in a previous interview with POLITICO. “We have been asking for a road map that would essentially say, ‘This, this is the criteria.’”
“What we would like to see is a global standard so there isn’t this patchwork of rules and restrictions. Some countries require proof of vaccine, others require a vaccine and a test result,” Pinkerton said.
She continued, “We think that [standard] would make the most sense and would cause the least confusion. We will continue to advocate; we’re not just saying, ‘Get rid of all travel restrictions.’ We’re saying, ‘Pick the criteria that makes sense to safely remove travel restrictions.’”