The measures aim to prevent new and more-contagious variants of the coronavirus from entering the United States, the administration said. “Everyone flying to the U.S. from another country will need to test before they get on that plane, before they depart, and quarantine when they arrive in America,” President Biden said of the order.
While the first of those rules has a clear prerequisite attached to it — acquiring a coronavirus test abroad — it remains unclear how a self-quarantine would be enforced, and the CDC said in an email Monday that it will not enforce its guidelines for quarantine as a rule. (The White House did not respond to requests for clarification on that stance.)
The Biden administration itself has said travelers are “required to comply” with “recommended periods of self-quarantine … after entry into the United States,” and has put out a call for recommendations on how government officials “could implement the policy.”
Biden’s executive order last Thursday asked federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services to come up with plans that “shall identify agencies’ tools and mechanisms to assist travelers in complying with such policy” within two weeks of the order’s signing.
Current CDC travel guidance recommends seven days of self-quarantine following international travel, as well as acquiring a coronavirus test three to five days into the quarantine. If a traveler cannot acquire a coronavirus test, CDC guidance recommends 10 days in quarantine.
A spokeswoman for the CDC, Caitlin Shockey, called the current legislation “not a mandatory quarantine, just a recommendation,” in an email to The Washington Post. The agency agreed that it will not be mobilizing in any way to enforce its guidance as a rule, and stated “there is not a mandatory, federal quarantine.”
Health agencies in nations with low coronavirus rates, such as Australia, New Zealand and parts of China, have since the beginning of the pandemic worked alongside law enforcement to require quarantines at designated facilities.
For example, Australians returning home are quarantined in hotels monitored by provincial health departments and police as quarantine facilities; Taiwan has utilized mobile phone GPS tracking to monitor people who are under quarantine. Officials in the United Kingdom are discussing mobilizing to begin using England’s hotels as quarantine facilities for entrants, according to the BBC.
What can travelers who are returning from abroad actually expect in the United States? Travel experts and officials say that quarantine enforcement will be tricky, but that following the CDC’s guidance as a requirement would be safest.
A spokesperson for the State Department said U.S. travelers “who must travel overseas” should review the CDC’s latest requirements for air passengers returning to the United States and follow testing guidance accordingly.
The U.S. Travel Association said in a statement that a “mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce,” and called the measure unnecessary because of the new testing requirements for arrivals.
Doctors have said of the new testing requirement, however, that the United States is one of the few countries that allows for less-accurate rapid antigen tests to be accepted as a means of entry. Most countries requiring the tests only allow for a PCR lab test, which is about 20 percent more accurate than a rapid test.
CDC global migration director Martin Cetron said in a Tuesday news briefing hosted by the State Department that airlines will be enforcing the testing requirement. If a person flying to the United States doesn’t have a negative result at an airport abroad, Cetron said, “the airline must deny boarding” and travelers “could be stuck in an extended way” overseas.
He also noted that “most of this return rec really falls into the jurisdiction of state and local authority, and each may have specific advice.”
David Freedman, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who reviews travel policies aimed at controlling the coronavirus, says that test results required for entry have typically been reviewed by airlines overseas, before boarding processes, and that no U.S. agencies have signaled any monitoring of quarantines for now.
Quarantine enforcement, he says, can be a “huge undertaking and [require] lots of resources.” The United States has not so far had any blanket quarantine requirements in place for arrivals, and has largely left that guidance up to individual states until now.
New York, for example, requires quarantines or a negative test result upon arrival, and sends text-message reminders of those rules to travelers who fill out required health forms to enter the state via air. Hawaii is the only state that, due to its remote location, requires and confirms negative coronavirus test results before entry — the state does not allow for rapid antigen tests.
“The U.S. has not had any mandatory quarantines up to now at the federal level,” Freedman says. He notes that the current administration’s move to “mandate” quarantine for all international arrivals in addition to preflight testing “will be much more effective at keeping new strains out, although it won’t further reduce in-flight transmission” of the virus.