Editor’s note: This story was first published by STAT on January 22, 2021.
The Trump White House on Monday released a presidential proclamation terminating travel bans on visitors from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and the European Schengen area starting on Jan. 26, when a negative Covid-19 test will be required to enter the country. It took less than an hour before the incoming Biden administration’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, tweeted, “On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.”
It isn’t clear what advice the medical team gave, but scientific evidence suggests that extending such restrictions will not make Americans safer. Instead, travel bans will result in adverse consequences for millions of family members who have been separated for over 10 months, as well as avoidable economic losses.
Travel bans were first introduced in late January 2020, and extended in March and May, as a way to protect the American public from widespread introduction of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. At the outset, with limited information about the virulence of the virus and case counts in the U.S., these bans were justified — and could even have been more stringent for a short period of time to buy time and bolster preparedness.
Yet once community spread became the dominant source of transmission, the benefits of travel bans became marginal at best. Extending them does little to help meaningfully reduce the number of infections, since U.S. citizens and residents are still allowed to travel, along with select other visa holders who have been exempted. And these bans have also taken economic and human tolls while creating a false sense of protection and security.
Other tools, including testing mandates, quarantines, and end-to-end contact tracing, will make a much bigger difference at a fraction of the cost.
Why Such an Ineffective Policy Remains in Place
The public and many political leaders tend to be drawn to easy fixes. Travel bans create the impression of a decisive public health response. During the Trump administration, they aligned with xenophobic policies against China and other countries.
Community spread — not importation — quickly became the dominant source of transmission in the United States. And for most of the past 10 months, the country has had one of the highest rates of Covid-19-related infection and death per capita. Given what we know about the relative safety of air travel and the natural decline in appetite for travel since the virus first emerged, a better response to the pandemic would have consisted of more targeted interventions: masks mandates, mandatory pre- or post-travel testing, quarantines for infected travelers, and contact tracing.
As we write this, about 1 in 35 Americans are infected with Covid-19, more than in most parts of the world from which the U.S. bans travelers — only Belgium, France, Serbia, Ireland, and French Polynesia have higher infection rates.
A policy of short-term travel restrictions, such as when investigating a novel viral strain, complemented by far more affordable and effective interventions is a better way forward.
The Economic and Human Toll of Travel Bans
Preventing travel by certain groups of visitors carries an enormous human and economic toll. First, the economic costs of the pandemic travel slump was estimated to result in a loss of $355 billion to the U.S. travel industry in 2020 alone, including a $55 billion drop in taxes and a loss of 4.6 million jobs. While it is too early to quantify the exact impact of travel restrictions, the International Air Transport Association has shown that after increasing in the summer months of 2020, the bookings count has plateaued at about 60% to 70% lower relative to the year before. While we cannot speculate about the impact of removing travel restrictions on U.S. airlines, a 45% increase in bookings was observed when the United Kingdom shortened its quarantine from 14 to five days, a meaningful and evidence-based policy change.
Support for travel restrictions may be justified by those who have been isolating away from their relatives within the United States. Yet millions of Americans and many foreign-born U.S. residents have vital family ties to either dependents or caregivers in other countries who may be unable to enter the U.S. unless they first spend 14 days in a country not currently subject to the bans. For most people, this means not being able to help a sick relative or attend important family events. For others, it leads to creative but self-defeating solutions like spending 14 days in an exempt country like Mexico or Serbia before entering the U.S. Neither contributes to protecting the public health here but increases the cost to families that are separated for so long.
We live in a globalized world, and the personal and professional toll on those separated by travel restrictions is hard to quantify. Still, better approaches are possible. The European Union’s Free Movement Directive requires member states to “facilitate the reunion of people in durable relationships.” The EU Council Recommendation from June 2020 lists “passengers travelling for imperative family reasons” and “passengers in transit” in exemptions to any travel restrictions, which also include individuals seeking asylum, students, and workers. The U.S. has not implemented similar reunification policies to serve as exemptions to travel bans.
As vaccines become more widely available and the number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. and other countries decline, travel restrictions will become completely futile. The Biden administration should support the termination of existing travel restrictions on Jan. 26 — when pre-trip coronavirus testing for incoming visitors is scheduled to become mandatory — and add or expand exemptions for those holding valid family, fiance, and other U.S. visas.
Jakub Hlávka is a research assistant professor of health policy and management at the USC Price School of Public Policy and a fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. Lisa Bari is the interim CEO of the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative.