European travelers frustrated by U.S. restrictions tied to COVID-19


The Henkel family’s plans to travel from Germany to Las Vegas call for a two-week detour to Mexico because of COVID-19 travel restrictions the U.S. maintains for arrivals from Europe.

Oliver Henkel, a business executive headed to a trade show next month, says he and his wife will make the best of their third country “waiting room,” instead of their preferred plan of visiting Southern California.

“We wanted to go to Venice Beach,” Henkel, 51, who is vaccinated, said in a recent phone interview. “But because of the U.S. travel restrictions we’ll be spending two weeks instead at a Caribbean resort in Mexico having margaritas.”

Even though the European Union lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions on Americans in mid-June, the United States has not yet reciprocated, to the chagrin of millions of tourists and businesspeople on the banned list.

The U.S. allows its citizens, their dependents, people who spent 14 days in a country not on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s prohibited list, and some with special status to enter the country. All air passengers arriving from a foreign country are required to present a negative COVID-19 test from no more than three days before flying.

Both the United States and the 27-nation European Union have pushed vaccination campaigns to fight COVID-19, which has caused more than 4.3 million deaths worldwide, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

More than 70% of Europeans over the age of 18 have received one shot and more than 60% are fully vaccinated, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. That compares closely with statistics for the United States, according to recent CDC data.

During the early days of the pandemic in March 2020, as infection rates climbed in the United States and Europe, then-President Trump introduced the travel restrictions, which the EU initially condemned before soon barring nonessential travel from the United States. Trump ordered the U.S. ban ended in his final week as president in January, but President Biden quickly rescinded that order because of safety concerns.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the Biden administration would not lift any existing travel restrictions amid concerns including the highly transmissible Delta variant. The administration reportedly may eventually require almost all foreign visitors to be vaccinated if the travel restrictions are ended.

In 2019, there were 14.5 million visitors from the EU to the United States; the largest bloc of 2.2 million came from Germany. Due to the pandemic restrictions, the number of EU visitors plunged to 2 million in 2020 and will probably remain as low in 2021, according to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office.

Although others in the EU share the desire for the U.S. to lift travel restrictions, it seems especially palpable in Germany, which has Europe’s leading economy. The Germany-based company BioNTech worked with Pfizer to manufacture and distribute one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“There’s no reason why fully vaccinated Europeans with negative COVID-19 tests should not be able to enter the United States,” Peter Beyer, the German government’s transatlantic coordinator and senior member of Parliament, said in a phone interview. “There are concerns that this could do serious damage to the economic recovery on both sides of the Atlantic.”

After the EU lifted the ban on all Americans, even the unvaccinated, on June 18 in light of the improved epidemiological situation, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Biden to review the ban on essentially all EU citizens. But it remains in place and news reports indicate the EU may again ban Americans if COVID-19 conditions in the United States deteriorate further.

“The odd thing is that those of us who were so delighted to see the German-American relationship embodied in a joint vaccine produced by German and American companies are perplexed that we can’t come up with a system through which Germans can travel to the United States as long as they have sufficient evidence of COVID control,” said Jackson Janes, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, referring to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Janes said he appreciated that some German journalists, research fellows and exchange students were able to receive exemptions to the travel ban to the United States.

“I don’t understand why they can’t open the spigots a bit more,” he said.

Sarah Stolz, an English and history teacher in Berlin who has frequently visited the U.S., said she and her family had to cancel plans to head to America this year. The family last traveled to the U.S. in 2019, visiting Seattle and elsewhere, she said.

“We love our road trips in the United States,” said Stolz, 41. “It’s always amazing to visit such a big country by car or RV, to visit the national parks, stay in motels and feel the freedom and feel the American way of life. We love the beaches in Florida and California, the energy of New York and American food.”

The family has visited Greece instead during the last two summers, she said.

“We really miss the United States and hope we can go next year,” she said, “but I worry the travel ban will still be there so it probably won’t be possible again until 2023.”

For Olav Schrage, a 48-year-old German cardiologist in Berlin, the urge for a trip to the U.S. came from wanting to see the Milwaukee Bucks play in the NBA finals last month — fans at arenas were encouraged to wear masks unless eating or drinking. He tried to get to a game — a ticket and his flights were all set, as was safe passage by arranging travel with his U.S.-born daughter — but he could not get the day off from work.

“I admit that, from a medical standpoint, it probably does make sense to restrict all the unnecessary social interaction on trips like that,” Schrage said. “But, on the other hand, a sports venue crammed with people not wearing masks is likely far worse than letting fully vaccinated people into the country.”

In practice, it may be difficult for EU citizens to get into the United States, but it’s not impossible.

Andrew Adair, a trade advisor for North America at the Mechanical Engineering Industry Assn. in Frankfurt, said experts needed to install or perform critical maintenance work on machines in the United States can generally get waivers from the travel ban. But many businesspeople want to travel for reasons that don’t fall under the State Department’s waiver criteria — most notably to meet clients and drum up business.

“It’s contrary to the interests of the United States to keep out German business travelers who are fully vaccinated and who are bringing jobs and prosperity to the United States,” said Adair, 48. “As the big trade fairs kick off this fall, it’s a ticking time bomb. You simply can’t hold a successful trade show without international guests. If the United States wants to continue to attract foreign investors and international business partners, the travel ban is a strange way of showing that.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.


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