The issue for wary Europeans isn’t just the United States’ persistently high national coronavirus case numbers, or the lingering pockets of anti-vaccination sentiment that have seen an immunization front-runner become a laggard. It’s that most Europeans, vaccinated or not, have been banned from the United States since March 14, 2020: more than 550 days and counting.
The U.S. ban — which affects most European visitors, but not American citizens, permanent residents and a limited number of visa holders flying from Europe — was imposed in the early days of the pandemic under President Donald Trump. Many Europeans believed President Biden would lift the ban soon after taking office. He didn’t. Later, some speculated he would do so after he visited Brussels or when he hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington, around the time that Europe and Britain lifted most of their own blanket restrictions. Still, no policy change.
Even as foreign diplomats and leaders descend on New York for the U.N. General Assembly and the nation prepares to host a summit on vaccination next week, the United States has proved unwilling to relax its rules for a wider group of travelers.
“Given where we are today in terms of the delta variant both here and around the world — we are maintaining the existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients told a meeting with representatives from the U.S. travel industry.
Some Europeans see no hope on the horizon for a lifting of the ban. “At this point, it’s really just incomprehensible,” said Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.
With little sign of change, tensions are flaring. The Times of London recently dubbed the policy “Kafkaesque” and indicative of “political cowardice.” European diplomats are increasingly speaking out, with at least one E.U. official canceling a planned trip to the United States in protest of the restrictions.
Even though Trump was the one who slammed the door on Europe, it is Biden who is keeping it shut. And the restriction’s continued existence threatens to widen a somewhat surprising transatlantic rift that has arisen during the Biden administration. Many Europeans had looked to Biden with enthusiasm after the “America First” policies of his predecessor but have been angered by unilateral moves on Afghanistan and other issues.
The Trump administration moved to lift the travel restrictions in January, but Biden’s team quickly reinstated them. There was little controversy at the time: Vaccinations were only just beginning, a devastating winter wave of covid-19 was sweeping the United States and Europe, and many countries’ borders were closed to most American travelers anyway.
By summer, that had changed. In June, the European Union announced it would recommend lifting restrictions on U.S. travelers, and U.S. citizens packed Parisian cafes and Aegean beaches. But if Europe was expecting reciprocity, it found itself disappointed.
Administration officials pointed to a new wave of coronavirus cases in the United States, driven by the delta variant, as justification for keeping the ban intact. “Given where we are today … with the delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on July 26 — almost exactly the same language used by her colleague Zients nearly two months later.
That rationale has grown weaker as time has progressed. Many European countries are far more widely vaccinated than the United States and have seen their daily coronavirus case numbers dip as a result. The delta variant is as dominant as it is likely to get in the United States, where large pockets of unvaccinated people already provided fertile ground, and cases are far higher than in Europe.
There were never any requirements for testing and quarantine that would have stopped a delta-spreading U.S. citizen traveling back from Europe. Meanwhile, other nations with lower vaccination rates and coronavirus waves do not currently face U.S. travel restrictions: Some, such as Serbia or Mexico, have served as popular stop-off points for Europeans traveling to the United States with the time and means.
Much of the public opposition to the restrictions has focused on the personal impact, with the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism on social media detailing accounts of divided families and missed life events, from births to deaths. But the economic impact on America is clear, too, with airlines, tourism-reliant businesses and European-owned companies complaining of losses. One industry estimate for the net losses from all U.S. coronavirus travel restrictions stands at $198 million per day.
One European official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid hurting ongoing negotiations, said the United States had simply “missed their moment” because of bureaucratic inertia over the summer. But some pinned part of the blame on the E.U. for unilaterally lifting measures on American travelers this summer. “I think the Europeans were a bit naive to expect automatic reciprocity from the United States,” said Haddad.
Now, with travel restrictions favored by Republicans and coronavirus anxiety common among Democrats, it may be politics, rather than science, that stops Biden from changing course. “If protecting Biden’s political flank is the criterion, as it may very well be, these and other border restrictions could remain frozen until 2022 U.S. midterm elections,” economist Edward Alden wrote for Foreign Policy this week.
Indeed, the U.S. travel restrictions may be more a reflection of what is happening inside American borders than outside. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the administration was debating a plan to require proof of vaccination for domestic or international air travel, but that there were concerns about travel disruption and the persistent Republican opposition to vaccine mandates.
Any concern about political backlash might be misplaced. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) tweeted last week that the policy “makes no sense” and called for vaccinated Europeans to be allowed into the United States.
Conservative groups have criticized the policy, too. The American Enterprise Institute’s Stan Veuger has dubbed the restrictions “not just bizarre and cruel, but ineffective too,” while the National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke has said that Biden should end the policy as soon as possible. “Fit it with concrete shoes and send it to the bottom of the ocean,” Cooke wrote.
It’s hard to imagine that reopening international travel will happen without some kind of system for recognizing foreign vaccines. Last week, the World Health Organization seemed to point the way, urging national governments to recognize all vaccines that have received WHO Emergency Use Listing so that they could avoid “chaos, confusion and discrimination.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Zients said the administration was working on a “new system” that could include “vaccination requirements for foreign nationals traveling to the United States,” as well as improved approaches to testing and surveillance. What that means is not yet clear, but here the Biden administration may have to think a little less American — and a little more French.
Tyler Pager contributed to this report.