What Is the Logic Behind Biden’s Covid Travel Bans?

If Americans are under restrictions, bans make sense, but there is not much consistency or transparency

By Andrew R. Arthur on June 7, 2021

On June 3, the Daily Mail published an article questioning the logic behind the pandemic-related ban on nationals of the United Kingdom (UK) travelling to the United States for tourism. That piece is loaded with self-interest (not surprisingly, given the fact that it is a British publication), but it does call into question the Biden administration’s admission policies.

Here’s a rough timeline: On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the Covid outbreak a global health emergency, and the next day, then-President Donald Trump declared a public health emergency and banned travel from China, where the novel coronavirus originated.

On March 11, 2020, Trump suspended all travel from the so-called “Schengen Area” in Europe for 30 days in response to the then-pandemic, restrictions that did not include the UK. Three days later, however, they were expanded to include the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and remain more or less in effect.

On March 18, 2020, Canada and the United States closed the “world’s longest undefended border” to non-essential travel, and the White House announced on March 19 that it had reached a "mutual agreement" with Mexico to restrict all "non-essential travel" across the Southwest border in response to the pandemic.

The following day, CDC issued its first order under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, directing the expulsion of aliens who had entered the United States illegally across a land border or without proper documents at land borders. On May 19, 2020, that order was extended to aliens at the coastal borders and ports of entry.

Those Title 42 orders remain in effect, but increasingly have not been utilized.

To backtrack briefly though, on March 20, 2020, the State Department also suspended routine visa services at embassies and consulates worldwide. On July 22, 2020, that department announced that it would resume visa issuance on a phased-in basis.

On January 18, 2021 (two days before the inauguration), Trump lifted the restrictions on travel from the Schengen Area, the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and Brazil, effective January 26.

The day before that proclamation was due to take effect, on January 25, Biden re-imposed those travel restrictions, and imposed restrictions on the Republic of South Africa. Note that there are too many exceptions to list, but U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents — and their spouses — can travel freely.

As the Daily Mail notes, pandemic-related travel restrictions remain in effect for travel to the United States from the UK, Ireland, South Africa, the Schengen Area, India, Brazil, China, and Iran, but it reports that there are no such restrictions on travel here for most of the rest of the world.

I will note, however, that the ban on non-essential travel over the land borders from Mexico and Canada remains in effect until at least June 21, although the State Department makes clear: “This action does not apply to air, rail, or sea travel at this time, but does apply to commuter rail and ferry travel.”

Apparently, even many Canadians were unaware of that air-travel loophole, as the country’s national broadcast outlet, the CBC, reported last June.

I went through the Canadian government’s website, however, and determined that I still cannot fly there, receiving a stern: “You will not be allowed to enter Canada, even if you have tested negative for COVID-19 or have received a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Of course, much of Europe is still off limits for American tourists, and entry for foreign nationals is usually based on the time-honored diplomatic concept of “reciprocity” — basically I’ll do unto you what you do unto me. That does not explain the Canadian conundrum, however.

None of this is to say that I necessarily disagree with the Biden administration, or want tourist travel from any of these countries if it is not safe, if foreign visitors will tax the U.S. healthcare system, and if those nonimmigrants won’t go home when they are supposed to.

It would likely help the American people, the hospitality industry, and the millions of foreign tourists waiting to spend money at Disneyworld and over-priced beach hotels to have some idea of the criteria for reopening travel, however — especially given the fact that the Trump administration lifted many of these restrictions more than four months ago, only to have them re-imposed before lapsing.

Is it positivity rates in the countries from which those tourists hail? Vaccination rates? Testing? No idea. An approach in which travelers from Japan (full vaccination rate: 3.13 percent) are free to enter the United States while their fellow tourists from the UK (full vaccination rate: 39.48 percent) can’t does not seem to make much sense.

Unless, of course, you conclude that the Biden administration simply put restrictions back in place just because Trump lifted them. I would hope that such pettiness does not affect decisions with such a major economic impact, however.

To recap: Tourist travel to the United States from most of the world is permitted, with some notable exceptions. The previous administration scheduled the lifting of many of the remaining restrictions in a last-minute move only to have them re-imposed by the current one. And, there is little if any transparency on the question of when they will be lifted.

As long as Americans remain under COVID restrictions, it makes sense to ban unnecessary travel by foreign nationals to this country. That, however, raises the question of why the Southwest border is seemingly open to unscreened aliens entering illegally, and why so many other foreign nationals with visas are free to come here via other ports of entry.