How do other countries avoid COVID infections as they loosen international travel restrictions?
For most of America, reopening the economy after COVID-19 means being able to go to a barbershop, a local gym, or restaurant – all relatively mundane activities that happen to involve small crowds of strangers gathering in an enclosed space. But for some major cities, it means much more: a return to hosting large, touristy recreational events, international business conferences, and gubernatorial summits. In terms of public health protocol, the main difference between a barber shop and a major business expo (besides the size of the event, attire of the attendees, and number of TV cameras present) is that businesspeople are often willing to travel far and wide to attend prominent conferences. With this point of contrast comes a moral quandary: should the United States waive its travel restrictions for foreign nationals who want to conduct important commerce?
This sort of policy has precedent in other countries, albeit ones that have far fewer COVID-19 cases per capita than the United States. For example, South Korea gives exemptions to its quarantine requirement for international travelers for “important business, academic, public, or humanitarian purposes.” Meanwhile, several countries, such as Japan, grant exceptions to its travel restrictions for other reasons, commonly to humanitarian aid workers or students. A full comparison on international travel policy between the United States and several other countries is expressed below in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Air travel government protocols enacted in response to COVID-19 among select countries
|Description of Protocol||China||France||Germany||Japan||South Korea||United States|
|All visas issued prior to COVID-19 are invalid||Enacted||Not enacted||Not enacted||Enacted||Only short-term visitor visas are invalid||Only for H-1B, H-2B, J, and L visas, and only if the visa holder is not already in the U.S.|
|Foreign arrivals generally must quarantine for 14 days||Enacted||Only if they refuse to take COVID test||Only if they refuse to take COVID test||Enacted||Enacted||Not enacted|
|Foreign arrivals must obtain a special certificate from an embassy certifying they are healthy enough to travel||Only for certain nationalities||Only for certain nationalities||Unclear||Enacted||Only for certain nationalities||Not enacted|
|All travelers must wear a facial covering while in transit||Enacted||Enacted||In select airports only||Enacted||Enacted||In select airports only|
|COVID-19 tests and/or temperature checks are available at major airports||Not enacted||Enacted, and the tests are often free of charge||Enacted, and the tests are often free of charge||Testing is available in select airports only||Temperature checks are required before boarding||Temperature checks are required before boarding; testing is available in select airports only|
|Travelers are subject to COVID-19 tests during quarantine period||Enacted||Not enacted||Only on a voluntary basis||Enacted||Enacted||Not enacted|
|Notable exceptions to travel ban:||Holders of diplomatic, service, courtesy, or C visas||Diplomats, students, researchers, health professionals||Urgent family or medical reasons, diplomatic missions||Students, humanitarian aid workers||Government officials, transit crews, business visa holders||Foreign diplomats, family members of U.S. citizens|
If the United States is to reform its safety practices for international travelers, perhaps it should also rethink its list of countries subject to travel bans due to COVID-19. Currently, the federal government bars people from setting foot on U.S. soil if they have visited Brazil, China, the European Schengen Area, Iran, Ireland, or the United Kingdom in the previous 14 days. While all of these countries had significant outbreaks at some point, countries like China and Sweden have since apparently got the virus under control. Meanwhile, the travel ban notably fails to include countries like Colombia, India, and Israel, which have all had frightening spikes in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
A bigger problem is that it would be hard to increase the appeal of traveling to the United States for business if business people are barred from returning to their home countries after visiting America. After all, most of the U.S.’s economic peer countries currently don’t allow visits from American nationals without a visa, which is also hurting our economy substantially. A notable exception is the U.K., which has a 2-week quarantine required for Americans, but still allows them to visit. In light of the extensive bans on American travel abroad, before reducing travel restrictions on foreigners, the U.S. should also coordinate a national effort to increase testing and decrease community spread among citizens of its own country. Ultimately, containing the virus stateside may provide a stronger incentive than loosening travel restrictions for foreigners to do business in the U.S.
Still, the details of how other countries have handled international travel during this crisis suggest that, even during COVID-19, foreign visitors should generally be allowed to come to the United States if:
- They receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding the plane
- They stay quarantined for 14 days once they arrive in the U.S.
- It is in the country’s best interest to admit them because of proven, predetermined circumstances, such as their participation in activities that enhance America’s innovation economy.
Currently, the United States simply doesn’t have the kind of national plan for managing and adjusting travel restrictions that many others do. Rather, related decisions in the U.S. often reflect a tangle of policies from states, cities, or even individual airports (see Figure 1). Some airports have implemented COVID-19 testing in airports in an attempt to stimulate demand in the travel industry.
Still, this confusing decentralized approach may be inhibiting healthcare, education, and technology firms from participating in the national and international exchange of ideas that they rely on to conduct their business. Such businesses are invaluable to America’s economy, and as much of the northeast, Pacific northwest, and other regions continue to see few new COVID-19 cases and sufficient testing figures, the U.S. should consider joining Germany, South Korea, and other countries in doing more to facilitate foreign travel to the United States.
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Andrew Mikula is a Research Assistant at the Pioneer Institute. Research areas of particular interest to Mr. Mikula include land use issues, the cost of living, and tax and regulatory structures. Mr. Mikula was previously the Lovett & Ruth Peters Economic Opportunity Fellow at the Institute. He has a B.A. in economics from Bates College.