Washington (Reuters) – The United States in November will re-open air travelers from China, India, Britain and many other European countries who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the White House said on Monday, rolling back tough pandemic-related travel restrictions imposed beginning early last year.
The decision, announced by White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients, marked an abrupt about-face for President Joe Biden’s administration, which last week said it was not the right time to lift any restrictions. The restrictions had prevented tens of thousands of foreign nationals from flying to the United States to see family members and slashed business travel.
The curbs on non-U.S. citizens were first imposed on air travelers from China in January 2020 by then-President Donald Trump and then extended to other countries in the following months, without any clear metrics for how and when to lift them.
The United States will admit fully vaccinated air travelers from the 26 so-called Schengen countries in Europe including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Greece, as well as Britain, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil. The existing policy had barred non-U.S. citizens who had been in those countries within 14 days.
Zients did not give a precise start date beyond saying “early November.”
The new policy was announced ahead of the United States hosting leaders from Britain, India, Japan and Australia at the White House this week, and Biden making his first speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the announcement “a fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again.”
Americans traveling from abroad who are not vaccinated will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel and will need to show proof of purchasing a viral test to be taken after arrival in the United States.
Countries during the pandemic have imposed numerous air travel restrictions and bans in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19. The policies devastated international travel and tourism and shook the airline industry, which carried out a series of service cutbacks and employee furloughs.
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said that through late August, international air travel was down 43% from pre-pandemic levels.
British Airways CEO and Chairman Sean Doyle said the news “marks an historic moment and one which will provide a huge boost to Global Britain as it emerges from this pandemic.”
Shares in British Airways parent IAG were up 11%.
Germany’s U.S. ambassador, Emily Haber, welcomed the “Great news” on Twitter, adding, “Hugely important to promote people-to-people contacts and transatlantic business.”
The White House said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will decide which vaccines qualify, including if those not approved by U.S. regulators will be acceptable. Foreign nationals will need to present proof of vaccination before travel and will not be required to quarantine upon arrival.
There will be some exceptions to the vaccine policy, officials said, including for children not yet eligible to be vaccinated. The new rules do not yet apply to travelers crossing land borders with Mexico and Canada.
Some Europeans and others on the restricted country list have been allowed to travel to the United States including students, journalists and others getting permission from the State Department.
Zients said the United States is again extending restrictions that bar non-essential travel through Oct. 21.
Critics have said travel restrictions no longer make sense because some countries with high COVID-19 rates are not on the restricted list while some countries on the list have the pandemic under control.
The U.S. Travel Association trade group previously estimated that the restrictions, if they ran to the end of the year, would cost the U.S. economy $325 billion in total losses and 1.1 million jobs.
Airlines heavily lobbied the White House to lift the restrictions, but failed to get them lifted in time for the summer travel season. The White House said in July here it had concerns about the highly infectious coronavirus Delta variant and a rising number of U.S. COVID-19 cases.
Zients said on Sept. 15 that given the rise of the Delta variant, it was not the right time to lift any travel restrictions. Asked on Monday what changed since then, Zients cited rising global vaccinations, adding: “The new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Zients said the new system will include collecting contact tracing data from passengers traveling into the United States to enable the CDC to contact travelers exposed to COVID-19.
Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, China and the United States have sparred over air services. In addition, Biden in April added new travel restrictions on India. Biden also reversed plans by Trump in January to lift restrictions on European countries.