Why America Scrapped Its Pandemic Travel Bans

The country’s decision wasn’t based on science; it was based on politics.

A map of the United States covered with airplane emojis and a Band-Aid
Shannon Lin / The Atlantic

When the United States announced this week that it would relax its ban on travelers from Europe and other countries after 18 long months, the goal was not to aid the suffering travel sector, nor was it to appease frustrated European travelers who spent much of the summer watching Americans travel freely to their respective countries while being unable to make the same trip in reverse. It didn’t even appear to be influenced by a shift in the pandemic situation, nor Europe’s comparably higher COVID-19 vaccination rates.

In the end, the impetus for the long-awaited (and arguably long-overdue) policy change appeared to be submarines.

This, at least, is how some observers have interpreted the about-face from the Biden administration, which only days ago insisted that it would be keeping its international travel restrictions in place owing to ongoing concerns over the coronavirus’s hypertransmissible Delta variant. For months, appeals from European capitals and affected families to drop the ban went unheeded. A series of shifts within the U.S. and abroad appear to have changed that calculus. As European partners have grown irate over a new “Anglo” military alliance, and as the U.S. has begun to impose more stringent domestic vaccine requirements, changing course on the travel restrictions has become more politically palatable. And so, the policy has finally been changed.

But in giving its allies what they wanted, the U.S. also ended up confirming one of their key arguments: that these restrictions, like many of the byzantine rules that govern the way people live and travel, had little basis in fact or science. By lifting its travel restrictions in an apparent bid to appease jilted partners, the U.S. helped illustrate how nonsensical the ban was in the first place.

In some ways, the Biden administration’s decision was the culmination of worsening ties between Washington and Europe. Although the problems began at the start of the summer, when the U.S. declined to reciprocate the European Union’s decision to reopen its borders to American tourists, transatlantic discontent quickly began to grow in size and scope. First there was the unilateral and seemingly chaotic handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which President Joe Biden rebuffed European leaders’ requests to delay the August 31 deadline to allow more time for evacuations. Then came last week’s news of the new AUKUS pact among the U.S., Britain, and Australia—an agreement that ended an existing submarine deal between Australia and France and prompted Paris to withdraw its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra in protest.

“After the submarines, I think Europeans really needed to have some proof that something was going well,” Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., who has closely followed this issue, told me. She noted that although the Biden administration had formed a series of working groups charged with determining how to best restart travel, there had been no indication that a change was imminent. Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on a journey across the Atlantic that “I wouldn’t necessarily hold my breath” about the rules changing.

In the end, he didn’t have to. With world leaders gathering for the United Nations General Assembly, and with the fallout over the submarine deal still ongoing, “there was a need to just lift this irritant,” Belin said.

The White House sought to downplay the timing of the announcement, telling reporters that the decision was based “on science,” not diplomacy. Though that certainly may have been true earlier in the pandemic, when vaccination rates in Europe were low and the threat of variants was high, it certainly isn’t now. After all, under the current travel rules, Americans can travel to and from Europe largely without restriction. The only way that a vaccinated European can do the same is if they first spend two weeks in a third country, such as Turkey or Mexico, that is not subject to the same travel restrictions despite having comparable, if not higher, case rates and lower rates of vaccination.

The randomness with which travel rules and restrictions are determined isn’t a symptom of the pandemic alone. Visa rules and restrictions have long been tools of foreign policy. When countries grant visa-free travel, they often do so as a symbolic act of cooperation, or on the condition of reciprocity, or as a perk attached to other agreements (India, for example, made looser immigration rules for its citizens a condition of any trade deal with Britain). When countries restrict travel, however, it can be interpreted as a kind of diplomatic retorsion—as has been the case in the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China, both of which have made it more difficult for the other’s students and scholars to obtain visas over concerns that such exchanges pose a national-security threat.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Europeans were so outraged by what many saw as an “incomprehensible” and “Kafkaesque” policy—one that was divisive not just politically but, in the case of many transatlantic families separated by the rules, literally.

Yet while the change in rules was widely welcomed across European capitals, it’s unlikely to be enough to mend the transatlantic divide. On AUKUS, in particular, EU leaders have warned that “something is broken” in the relationship and that a number of open questions will need to be answered before relations can return to “business as usual.”

“It’s definitely not enough,” Belin said, “but it’s a good first step in acknowledging at least that your partners deserve a minimum of respect. One less irritant cannot be a bad thing.”