Editorial: It Is Time To Revisit Travel Bans

airport testing center sign
Credit: Daneil Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

When the novel coronavirus pandemic exploded early last year, governments reacted quickly by closing borders. The idea was to stop the global spread of a virus that had originated in a Chinese city. And if stopping the virus was impossible, they hoped the measures would at least buy more time to prepare for its arrival and protect unvaccinated populations.

Eighteen months on, the aviation industry is still being hobbled by government strictures that do not always make sense. Take the U.S. ban on travelers from the EU. Although many European nations reopened to U.S. tourists this summer, the Biden administration has steadfastly refused EU pleas to lift the U.S. ban on European travelers. While that made sense during Europe’s slow vaccination rollout, the EU surpassed the U.S. in inoculations more than a month ago and has much lower COVID-19 infection rates. It is certainly safer in Munich than Mobile.

Now another shoe has dropped. The European Commission, citing high infection rates in the U.S., has proposed tightening restrictions on “nonessential” American visitors. The Netherlands just designated U.S. travelers “very high risk,” while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is urging Americans to reconsider trips to Italy because of the coronavirus.

The frustration in all this is that there are ways to safely restore the flow of transatlantic air traffic. Protocols such as those in the Public Health Corridors concept developed by a task force led by the International Civil Aviation Organization offer more risk--reduction opportunity. Requiring passengers to be vaccinated, show proof of a negative COVID-19 test and continue to wear masks in aircraft and airports would reduce risk significantly. The concept is hardly new: For decades, some nations have required visitors to show proof of vaccination against diseases such as yellow fever.

Even before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in North America and Europe, studies showed that cases of the virus spreading during air travel were low because passengers were bound by strict rules. Infections took place when people met with family, friends or colleagues without masks and social distancing.

It will take years to eradicate COVID-19 globally, if that is even possible. We support the airline industry’s position that governments should manage risk rather than trying to eliminate it. Vaccinations have provided an effective umbrella against severe illness and restored access to basic freedoms such as eating in a restaurant or attending a concert. Resuming freedom of movement should be no different.