Analysis

America’s Pandemic Travel Bans No Longer Make Sense

A thoughtless, unscientific policy of closed borders—even to vaccinated travelers—does a little more damage every day.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
International terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York
A sparsely populated international terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport before U.S. President Joe Biden signed restrictions on travel to the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic is seen in New York on Jan. 25. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Many countries around the world, concerned over the economic and human costs of the lengthy shutdown of international travel during the pandemic, are busy experimenting with how to reopen their borders while protecting their citizens. The United States, in stark contrast, is locked down even more tightly than it was when the Trump administration first put travel restrictions in place at the start of the outbreak. Against all common sense, fully vaccinated travelers from many countries with much lower case rates than the United States remain blocked.

Amid the tribal fights that roil American politics daily, liberals and conservatives seem to have found strange common ground on closed borders. The left fears the virus; the right fears foreigners. The result has been a policy gridlock that is increasingly isolating the United States, especially from its closest allies, while doing nothing to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Many countries that have endured several COVID-19 waves are nonetheless trying to re-open their borders as conditions permit. European Union member states have for many months regularly updated their lists of restricted countries based on the latest epidemiological data. Most have now opened to foreign travelers, generally requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before arrival. The EU recently removed the United States from its safe travel list due to the surge of the delta variant, but Germany, France, Spain, and most other EU member states are still permitting travel by fully vaccinated Americans or those recovered from COVID-19 and naturally immune. Only a handful of European countries, such as Norway and Bulgaria, have opted to close to U.S. visitors, while some others allow only limited essential travel.

Many countries around the world, concerned over the economic and human costs of the lengthy shutdown of international travel during the pandemic, are busy experimenting with how to reopen their borders while protecting their citizens. The United States, in stark contrast, is locked down even more tightly than it was when the Trump administration first put travel restrictions in place at the start of the outbreak. Against all common sense, fully vaccinated travelers from many countries with much lower case rates than the United States remain blocked.

Amid the tribal fights that roil American politics daily, liberals and conservatives seem to have found strange common ground on closed borders. The left fears the virus; the right fears foreigners. The result has been a policy gridlock that is increasingly isolating the United States, especially from its closest allies, while doing nothing to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Many countries that have endured several COVID-19 waves are nonetheless trying to re-open their borders as conditions permit. European Union member states have for many months regularly updated their lists of restricted countries based on the latest epidemiological data. Most have now opened to foreign travelers, generally requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before arrival. The EU recently removed the United States from its safe travel list due to the surge of the delta variant, but Germany, France, Spain, and most other EU member states are still permitting travel by fully vaccinated Americans or those recovered from COVID-19 and naturally immune. Only a handful of European countries, such as Norway and Bulgaria, have opted to close to U.S. visitors, while some others allow only limited essential travel.

Canada, for many months, took a hard line by Western standards. Ottawa barred most non-essential incoming travel and forced both returning Canadians and international visitors into costly quarantine hotels. But it still experimented during the pandemic with reduced quarantine times for some travelers who tested negative for COVID-19 (a short-lived experiment) and created broad exemptions for family members and long-term partners of Canadians. And in early September, Canada opened its borders to all international travelers who are fully vaccinated and pass a COVID-19 screening test before arrival; the country had already opened to vaccinated Americans in August and unveiled a screening app for gathering health data from travelers.

If protecting Biden’s political flank is the criterion, as it may very well be, these and other border restrictions could remain frozen until the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.

Even those places pursuing a zero COVID-19 strategy through sealed borders and aggressive contact tracing have shown occasional flexibility. Hong Kong, which had been requiring a 21-day quarantine for the rare traveler, recently began permitting up to 2,000 visitors per day to enter from China and Macau with advanced testing. New Zealand and Australia earlier this year briefly opened a quarantine-free travel bubble with each other, before shutting it down due to rising delta cases and very low vaccination rates.

While each country might balance the benefits and risks of open borders a bit differently, the basic elements of a border policy that protects public health are becoming clear. For countries not trying to stamp out the virus entirely using draconian measures, policies generally work to implement travel restrictions based on careful, facts-based risk assessment. We know that fully vaccinated individuals pose a significantly lower risk of catching and spreading the virus, and a pre-travel test adds another layer of protection. Some countries also require an additional test after arrival. Digital systems like the EU’s digital COVID-19 certificate, which the bloc launched in July, help ensure that travelers are complying with the regulations. Other countries are now adopting the EU model. Even with those measures in place, it may sometimes be necessary to further restrict travel from countries experiencing very high outbreaks or new virus mutations. But those restrictions should be regularly monitored and adjusted based on current data, as the EU does with its biweekly updates of the safe list.

In comparison, U.S. travel and border policies have barely budged since the start of the pandemic. Some rules have tightened under U.S. President Joe Biden, even as many of the countries whose citizens remain banned have significantly outpaced the United States in controlling the pandemic. In February and March 2020, the Trump administration barred travel from China, Iran, the Schengen countries of the EU, Britain, and Ireland—all places that had significant early outbreaks. Trump later added Brazil to the list of prohibited countries, and this year Biden added South Africa and India following outbreaks of new variants in those countries. For the land borders, the United States agreed with Canada and Mexico in March 2020 to block all but “essential” travelers. Given a long history of close U.S.-Canadian cooperation, Ottawa was caught off-guard last month when it lifted the land border restrictions for vaccinated Americans only to have Washington extend its shutdown and refuse to reciprocate for Canadians.

The lack of U.S. progress cannot be laid at the feet of Trump, who was certainly eager to use the pandemic as an excuse for closing the borders, especially with Mexico and the EU. But in his final days, Trump had decided to lift the travel restrictions on Europeans and Brazilians, only to have Biden extend the bans during his first week in office.

Even those of us with reasons to monitor the border measures closely (I was cut off from family in Canada for many months) have been left scratching our heads trying to make sense of the Biden team’s approach. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas was of little help last week, telling Buffalo News that although he had hoped to loosen restrictions by now, “regrettably because of the delta variant, we’ve been delayed in doing so.” In the annals of disingenuous government double-speak, that one deserves a place on the podium: Until Biden’s announcement last week of expanded mandatory vaccinations, Washington had done little to stem the spread of the delta variant domestically other than urging Americans to get the jab. Republican governors in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere have actively encouraged the spread of the disease by outlawing mandatory masking and other preventive measures. The U.S. case rate is now the third worst among the advanced economies, behind only Britain’s and Israel’s.

The irrationality doesn’t stop there. Unlike Europe, the United States has not updated its travel and border restrictions to target countries with serious delta outbreaks. Citizens of many of the countries that currently have the highest case and death rates globally, including Grenada, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, are still permitted to fly to the United States with just an advance negative COVID-19 test or proof of recent COVID-19 recovery, with no vaccination requirement and no mandatory quarantine. Even as Delta cases surged in Mexico this summer, Mexicans were allowed to fly to the United States. (The land border remained shut.) Canadians have similarly been able to fly, but not drive, to their southern neighbor, a piece of epidemiological nonsense that no U.S. government official has bothered to explain or defend.

Reporters from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) tried to get to the bottom of the air exemption recently, but got a Kafkaesque run-around: “CBC News asked the [U.S. Department of Homeland Security], the White House, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) why the land border remains closed to Canadian travellers, but flying into the country is OK. The State Department said to contact the White House and DHS. CBP said to contact DHS. Neither DHS nor the White House responded to repeated inquiries.”

It’s hard to see what, if anything, might finally goad the United States into action. The Biden administration set up a working group of health experts back in June to develop a plan to reopen to European travelers, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying, “We heard very clearly the desire of our friends in Europe and the UK to be able to reopen travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and we want to see that happen.” Other working groups were set up to consider reopening to Canada, Mexico, and Britain, but the administration has said nothing about its internal deliberations, let alone progress, for the past three months. The Biden team has ignored growing complaints from European leaders and officials, including a personal plea from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, about the lack of reciprocity.

The only complaints inside the United States are coming from a handful of border states, which have seen the economic and social damage to their communities up close.

Biden appeared set to lift so-called Title 42 restrictions at the Mexican and Canadian land borders in July, responding to pressure from immigration advocates angered that the administration was using health restrictions to summarily deport Central American asylum seekers arriving at the border. Title 42 refers to authority that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used in March 2020 to bar travelers from Canada and Mexico, focusing particularly on unlawful border crossings. The move would almost certainly have led to lifting the other land border restrictions as well, but Biden balked in the face of Republican charges that he was opening the door to a growing flood of asylum seekers.

Some reports have suggested that the White House is working with the airlines to put in place a vaccination requirement for foreign travelers. But Politico reported over the summer that Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, fears the administration will pay a political price if it is seen to be favoring so-called vaccine passports—a Republican bugaboo. If protecting Biden’s political flank is the criterion, as it may very well be, these and other border restrictions could remain frozen until the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.

There is another reason why borders could remain closed for a while: The status quo seems to suit both sides of the political divide. Democrats can don their masks and wax virtuously that border restrictions are just one more sensible sacrifice to help contain the delta surge. Meanwhile, the better-off among them will keep traveling to the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, and the many other places that welcome vaccinated Americans. Progressives in the party remain angry about the Mexican border measures, but Biden’s decision to retain Title 42 barely made the news and is now tied up in the courts.

Republicans, for their part, can rally behind Florida Governor and likely presidential contender Ron DeSantis. Without a shred of evidence, De Santis blamed the massive delta outbreak in his state on Biden for letting “COVID-19-infected migrants pour over our southern border by the hundreds of thousands,” rather than on his own state’s opposition to vaccine mandates and its anti-masking laws. Biden’s alleged “open border” policies are a big part of the Republican playbook for the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election. Like Trump, many Republicans are less fearful than Democrats of the virus and would likely support reopening the borders to Europeans and Canadians. But so far, that has been a far lower priority than keeping the border with Mexico shut. Biden, in turn, may not want to risk angering activist Democrats by opening to Europe and Canada while restricting Mexicans.

The only complaints inside the United States are coming from a handful of border states—regardless of party—which have seen the economic and social damage to their communities up close. Seventy-five members of Congress wrote a bipartisan letter in July urging the administration to “follow the science” and lift restrictions on fully vaccinated travelers. But their concerns have had little support from congressional leaders in either party and have received no hearing by the administration. Pleas to reopen from the tourist industry, especially in those regions and sectors that depend on international travelers, have also been ignored.

Stewing in its toxic political culture, the United States remains obsessed with its internal political battles over COVID-19 and everything else.

It is not clear how the United States can climb out from the hole it has dug for itself. There may be a new opportunity for reopening when the delta outbreak wanes, but border restrictions are popular with both parties. Nor has the administration taken the steps necessary to verify the vaccination status of foreign travelers, something many other countries have done by now. Having no system for vaccination proof makes reopening an all-or-nothing proposition—and virtually guarantees further inaction. Ultimately, though, moving forward will likely require the administration to embrace some form of vaccine passport—at the very least for foreign nationals—and live with the political fallout.

For a U.S. citizen traveling to and returning from Canada by car these days, the experience is disorienting. I have made the trip twice now since the restrictions eased this summer. Driving north requires jumping through a series of hurdles to demonstrate COVID-19-free status to the Canadian border officials. But reentering the United States, I was not asked a single question about my health either time by the U.S. customs and border officers on duty. Their only question was whether I had goods to declare. They waved me through when I answered no.

So as the world experiments and converges on a consensus for allowing safe travel, the United States marches on to its own drumbeat. Stewing in its toxic political culture, it remains obsessed with its internal political battles over COVID-19 and everything else, and oblivious as other countries try to find the best path between openness and public safety. The U.S. government continues to default to the easiest political option—a thoughtless policy of closed borders that does a little more human and economic damage every day it remains in place.

Edward Alden is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?