The Biden administration announced last week that it will end the Covid-19 emergency declarations in May, but Republicans have a chance at terminating one outdated, unscientific lockdown-era restriction sooner with a House vote on Wednesday.
The United States is the only major Western nation still mandating international visitors be vaccinated against Covid-19. Even countries that once had the strictest Covid lockdowns dropped such travel restrictions long ago.
The few other countries and far-flung island territories still requiring international travelers to be vaccinated for Covid-19 are: Tokelau, Niue, Pitcairn, Tonga, Liberia, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Fiji, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Palau, Nauru, Turkmenistan, and Turks and Caicos (you can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of some of these places), and possibly a few others.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will consider HR 185, a bill sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., to end the visitor vaccination requirement. President Joe Biden issued a statement Tuesday opposing HR 185; Rep. Massie noted it did not include a veto threat.
The House had voted last week to immediately end the Covid-19 national emergency first declared in March 2020, which would have affected many more Covid-era mandates, but the measure is not expected to pass the Senate. However, the narrower legislation to allow travelers who haven’t taken the vaccines has a better chance of passing, as Democrats should not want to be seen as xenophobic and behind the rest of the world.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University tweeted in support of the legislation: “There is no good reason, scientific or epidemiologic, to discriminate against the covid unvaccinated. The US is an international outlier in retaining this irrational policy.”
The United Kingdom has been open to unvaccinated travelers since March. Austria, which had some of the harshest Covid policies in Europe, canceled Covid vax requirements for travel back in May. Most of Europe had dropped such requirements by last summer.
When New Zealand ended government vaccine mandates, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explained that low Covid case numbers and hospitalizations and widespread vaccination and access to anti-viral medicines meant it was “time to safely turn the page on our COVID-19 management.” She also noted that opening up the country would help “drive greater economic activity critical to our economic recovery.”
It’s hard to see why the U.S. policy still stands. We know that the vaccine doesn’t appear to reduce transmission, and certainly doesn’t do so 100 percent of the time, as the public was initially told.
Three-quarters of U.S. adults got the vaccines, meaning everyone who wants them has access to them. Natural immunity is better than vaccination. It’s also almost three years since Covid broke out — the virus spread all around the world and created herd immunity long ago.
The virus is also is widely transmitted within our own borders among the U.S. population of 334 million. Indeed, President Biden said back in September that the pandemic “is over.”
Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains its policy: “If you are a non-U.S. citizen who is a nonimmigrant (not a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, lawful permanent resident, or traveling to the United States on an immigrant visa), you will need to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before you travel by air to the United States from a foreign country.” Minors are excepted, as are asylum seekers and a few other small categories of people.
Biden first ordered the requirements back in October 2021, at the same time that he was still encouraging everyone to wear masks. (For visitors from China, since the country is not sharing information on its surge in Covid-19 cases, the CDC is rightly requiring a negative Covid test for air passengers.)
The policy is also a double standard. While the United States’s front door is closed to the unvaccinated, the Biden administration is leaving the back door open to a record number of illegal border crossers. In the past two years, more than 1 million have evaded border officials, so we don’t know their vaccination status. Millions more have entered legally during that period by land, but without stringent checks for vaccination status.
The Department of Homeland Security allows for verbal attestation of Covid vaccination for those entering the country by land but doesn’t require proof, although officials may request it. In contrast, to enter by air, travelers must, before boarding a plane, present official documents proving Covid vaccination.
Boost Our Economy
The United States should welcome visitors, not only to share our blessings and values and for the mutual benefits of cultural exchange, and to reunite families, but also for the sake of our struggling economy, which could use the boost: a majority of economists are forecasting recession, as are several major banks.
Prior to the Covid-19 lockdowns, in 2019, international travelers spent $233.5 billion visiting the United States, according to the Department of Commerce. That year, “[T]he U.S. travel and tourism industry generated $1.9 trillion in economic output; supporting 9.5 million American jobs,” the department reported.
During the pandemic, travel and tourism’s share of GDP fell from 2.9 percent in 2019 to a historic low of 1.7 percent in 2020, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. International arrivals to the U.S. still haven’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels. More visitors would mean more income for the travel and tourism industry, but also for small businesses and others.
Why is the United States still far behind most other nations and banning unvaccinated travelers? Perhaps it’s the slowness of our huge government, continued Covid fearmongering, or the influence of airline or pharmaceutical companies. Whatever it is, it’s time to open the gates.
Notably, the Biden administration doesn’t need congressional action to drop the requirements.
This article has been updated with the president’s statement.