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‘Welcome back world’: US drops travel ban after more than 600 days

Air travelers line up at O'hare International Airport's United Terminal. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
November 10, 2021

A rush of international travelers is headed into the United States border today as the COVID-19 travel ban ended at midnight Eastern time and people from dozens of countries begin flooding in, more than 600 days since they were barred from entry.

That’s more than 86 weeks. Nearly 20 months. Enough time for grandchildren to be born, or for couples to lose track of the number of nights they fell asleep to Facetime calls with their partner. Long enough to lose hope in a U.S. vacation or honeymoon after having to delay plans over and over again.

Lines began forming at the Canadian and Mexican borders well before daybreak, and eager travelers boarded flights from Europe, including dueling departures from London’s Heathrow. The U.S.-Mexican border is typically the world’s busiest border crossing, with about 350 million people crossing annually.

The new U.S. entry requirements require foreign air passengers to test negative for the virus before boarding a plane to the country and, if they are 18 or older, show proof of full vaccination. Travelers entering the U.S. on land or by ferry for nonessential reasons must show proof of vaccination. Although federal officials had warned of the potential for long lines at entry points, there seemed to be few delays as visitors arrived by land and air.

It’s a long-awaited moment for travelers from more than 30 countries. The U.S. initiated its first COVID-related travel ban on China in February 2020. By the end of March, it added travel bans on the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iran, and 26 countries in the European Schengen Area. Brazil, India and South Africa were later added to the list.

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Mexican border busy… then quiet

After a busy few hours after midnight ET at the El Paso-Juarez border crossing in Texas, the normally bustling border crossing fell quiet. Traffic was minimal at crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and passenger vehicles zipped up the El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas freely, no line to stop them.

“I’ve sold hardly anything,” said newspaper salesman José Fierro, whose rack was still filled with El Diario newspapers and PM tabloids at 8 a.m. He had been there on the curb since 3 a.m., he said. There was 6 a.m. traffic, then nothing. “Everyone crossed yesterday, panicked about how the lines were going to be today.”

Constantino Castellanos, 68, and his wife Lizbeth, 62, bought quesadillas at the foot of the Bridge of the Americas, a street vendor handing over a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic.

They could take their time. The bridge — usually a wall of slow-moving cars and trucks — was an empty ribbon of asphalt. The border had been closed to tourists or people visiting family, although a wide variety of essential workers had been permitted to cross during the closure. During the closure, Mexican nationals holding tourist cards were banned from traveling over the land border — although air travel between points in the interior of both countries never ceased.

“It’s been two years,” said Lizbeth Castellanos. “We’re going to Marshalls and Walmart.”

The crossing reopened at just after midnight Eastern time and at 6 a.m. Eastern, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported no significant crossing delays at either the Mexican or Canadian borders.

Cross-border traffic of essential travelers between El Paso and Juárez reached nearly 800,000 crossings of passenger vehicles in August, according to the Border Region Modeling Project at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Nobody anticipated that this pandemic would last as long as it has, in terms of travel restrictions,” said Hector Mancha, U.S. Customs and Border Protection director of field operations in El Paso. “People have not crossed over and visited with family in going on two years… Unfortunately, the pandemic has kept us from (reopening). I think it’s overdue.”

— Lauren Villagran, El Paso Times

‘Welcome back world’

Times Square was relatively quiet Monday morning as the city that never sleeps prepared to welcome vaccinated international tourists back to the U.S.

Around 8:45 am, the Times Square Alliance unfurled a “Welcome Back World” sign on the Red Steps in Times Square.

The Steps, considered an iconic New York landmark for tourists, had about 190,000 people walk by them each day before the pandemic, according to the Times Square Alliance, the not-for-profit group that maintains it. At the pandemic’s worst, that number dropped to 30,000, and New York businesses hope the flood of tourists will boost their finances.

TJ Witham, the vice president of communications for the Times Square Alliance, told USA TODAY the alliance chose the red steps as it is an “iconic meeting place” for people visiting the Big Apple.

— Morgan Hines, USA TODAY

Anticipation at airports

Ahead of the British Airways first flight arrival, family members waited in the Terminal 7 arrivals area at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is decked out with balloons and New York symbols including the back half of a taxicab filled with a floral arrangement and NYC-themed cookies.

Louise Erebara, from Danbury, Connecticut, arrived at the airport with her family early to welcome her sister and her sister’s husband after 730 days apart.

“It’s everything, we can’t thank British Airways enough,” a choked-up Erebara said, noting the airline paid for her relatives’ flight. “They want to reunite ex-pats and they’re doing it.”

— Dawn Gilbertson, Morgan Hines, USA TODAY

Scattered delays

Julien Yomtov of Paris said he faced several frustrating delays leaving France — first at security and then again when the plane’s departure was delayed an hour. He said he’s excited to get back to Las Vegas, traveling via Los Angeles, to play in the World Series of Poker, which he normally does annually with his brother.

“The experience was stressful because the employees are (not) ready to welcome so many travelers,” he told USA TODAY via Whatsapp. “Hope in LAX it will be easier.”

— Bailey Schulz, USA TODAY

Families begin to reunite

Simone Thies of Cologne, Germany, is flying in to see her fiancé, who she has seen just twice since the ban began— once during a trip to Aruba in June, and again when he visited her in Germany in August. Before those trips, they had been separated a year. Thies stayed overnight in a Düsseldorf hotel near the airport before catching her Delta flight, headed ultimately to Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I want to avoid stress because everything is so exciting,” she said.

Getting through the line at the Düsseldorf airport was quick — “5 minutes at most,” she said — but she had one more stop in Paris before crossing the Atlantic.

There, she had to show her passport, proof of vaccination and results of her negative coronavirus test. Even as the first person in line, the wait took about 20 minutes because one employee was still learning which documents to check, she said.

“The line is very long, but (I’m) done for now,” she said before departing.

Alan Marques said the border closure for tourists nearly ended his relationship with his boyfriend, who is a flight attendant. They’ve been together four years, but hadn’t seen each other in four months, until Marques, 33, flew in from Sao Paulo to Atlanta on Monday. He said the separation has been “very difficult and distressing,” because his boyfriend’s visits to Brazil have only been for a few hours, instead of the days they are used to.

How does it feel to be properly reunited? “So good,” he said.

— Bailey Schulz, Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Changes affect most air travelers

Arriving in Atlanta from Korea, Seongbin Woo, 26, said his travel experience for his first U.S. visit was “not that smooth,” largely because he had to rush to get test results back before departing Seoul. Although Korean nationals were not banned from travel to the U.S., anyone arriving as of Monday must follow new protocols, including showing proof of vaccination.

“I heard that everyone here is not wearing masks, so it’s good for me because I am tired of masks,” he said. He added he is still concerned about getting sick.

Ivana Pedroso, 30, tearily reunited with her parents as they arrived from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Pedroso lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she’s a graduate student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. She had been able to visit Brazil several times, but this is the first time her parents will see the house she bought.

“It’s great. Exciting. I have been waiting for this moment for two years because she doesn’t know my house,” Pedroso said. “They don’t know where I live. So I’ve been waiting for this moment for two years.

Pedroso said her parents will stay for her graduation in December, on a trip they’ve been rescheduling for two frustrating years. Her parents said the flights and border control checks went smoothly, and they were confident they would be safe.

“She was a little bit nervous, but since they followed the protocols and all the companies, Delta Airlines and the airport followed the protocols with COVID, everything was OK,” Pedroso said of her mom. “Sanitizers and masks all the time. They’re good.”

— Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Lines at the Canada-US border

Windsor, Ontario, Mayor Drew Dilkens said a Canadian travel requirement — having negative polymerase chain reaction test that can cost $200 — is likely to prevent many who want to drive from Ontario to Michigan from doing so.

He explained the testing provision doesn’t make sense for day-trippers nor does it provide the kind of health assurance the government thinks it does because someone could easily contract the virus during their visit.

He wants to see that requirement lifted.

— Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press

How did the international travel ban start?

The travel ban barred most foreign nationals who had been in the listed counties in the past 14 days from entering the U.S., regardless of vaccination status. The country also cut off nonessential travel across the U.S. land borders with Mexico and China in March 2020.

It wasn’t until September that the White House announced that it would end the travel ban for fully vaccinated travelers — months after many other nations reopened to U.S. tourists.

The new U.S. entry requirements, which went into effect Monday, require foreign air passengers to test negative for the virus before boarding a plane to the country and, if they are 18 or older, show proof of full vaccination. Travelers entering the U.S. on land or by ferry for nonessential reasons also need to show proof of vaccination.

As airports and border crossings get adjusted to the new travel rules, international travelers should prepare for lines.

The first flight from a country listed the travel ban is set to fly into Chicago from Dublin just before 7 a.m. CT, according to flight tracker Flight Aware and flight-data firm OAG.

Plenty more will follow; there are more than 2 million international flights scheduled to arrive in the U.S. next month, compared to just 728,820 in December of 2020, according to OAG and Flight Aware.

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