Because of COVID-19, visitors still cannot fly directly to the United States from China, Europe, Brazil, South Africa or India (or Iran, but there are other reasons for that). Although colloquially called “travel bans,” these policies are not actually bans, and never were.
I would know—I helped create them while serving in Donald Trump‘s White House Counsel’s office. The travel restrictions require visitors from identified hot spots to wait (not even quarantine) in a non-hot spot for 14 days before coming to the United States. Of course, that is way easier said than done, but the restrictions’ structure sheds light on their purpose: keeping the risk of importing coronavirus lower than the risk of spreading it naturally.
For example, if 30 percent of a country’s population had COVID-19, and less than 1 percent of the U.S. population had COVID, travel restrictions would make sense because every plane full of visitors from that country creates a higher risk of COVID spread than that same number of Americans would. Even when the United States had the same COVID transmission rates as other countries, a travel restriction could be justified because, for a while, the U.S. had no way of determining whether any plane full of people had a similar risk of spreading COVID as the same number of Americans. (For example, a plane full of wild Italian spring breakers brings a higher risk of both having and spreading COVID than 150 American loners, but the spring breaker can be hard to accurately identify.)
So, do the travel restrictions still make sense? Some countries on the “banned” list—South Africa and Brazil in particular—do have higher COVID spread rates than the United States, while certain other countries—China—are not to be trusted in COVID disclosures or, really, anything. Plus we’ve got to watch out for the Delta variant and who-knows-what-else coming our way. So one could argue, under the old metrics, we should keep travel restricted.
But it’s time to throw out the old metrics. The first travel restriction, imposed on China, was a fast, necessary solution for an uncertain time. The U.S. and other countries had no rapid testing, no vaccine and no consistent contact tracing. Airlines had no prep time and no systems to deal with the great unknown.
Our defense against the virus is now stronger than any travel restrictions. In other words, the restrictions no longer add the value they were designed for. Unlike mass migration across the southern border, international air travel is structured. We know who is arriving, whether they have been tested, whether they have been vaccinated and airlines can even ask where they will be staying, with whom and what they will be doing.
Adding new structure is no simple task. For travelers, finding a rapid test is a pain and potentially expensive, and some don’t want to be vaccinated. But letting the circumstances of the few justify restrictions on all is a mistake. Traveling itself is a pain, and is expensive, but we don’t limit all travel because a few people find access to it difficult. And no doubt the airlines will struggle to implement any new regulations. When I was working for the Trump administration, the airlines howled whenever we suggested they change their procedures. But babying our airlines has paused innovation and competition for long enough—the strong (or at least, functioning) companies can rise to the challenge.
The restrictions create serious harm, and should only be kept if they create equally serious value. In 2019, the United States hosted more than 80 million international travelers, whose tourism contributed more than $1.1 trillion to our GDP. Blocking travel is almost always a reciprocal endeavor, meaning U.S. travelers are less able to access the world than our less restrictive neighbors. Sure, we can visit Texas and Florida instead, but American ideas and innovations are far less likely to spread globally over an international Zoom call.
Shutting off the spigot of international travel was never meant to be a permanent solution. It was meant to buy time. That time has now passed. The risks inherent in travel will never be zero, but the innovations we were waiting for now exist, or can exist with the right incentives.