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Just last month, Europe eased restrictions on vaccinated American travelers, and Canada announced this week that it would open its border to fully vaccinated Americans for unnecessary travel as early as mid-August.
“I think the American people deserve an explanation: what the hell happened?” said Rep. Brian Higgins (DN.Y.), one of 75 lawmakers who sent a letter to Biden last week asking him to “take science-based, data-driven steps to make international travel to the United States safe to reopen ”. Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) And Rick Scott (R-Fla.) Are also preparing to send a letter to Biden, according to a Senate Democratic adviser.
Some high-ranking officials in the Biden administration, including cabinet secretaries and doctors, have spoken out in favor of easing restrictions as long as travelers entering the US can show they have had vaccinations or have a negative Covid test. However, the government is refusing to ask companies, including airlines, to request proof of vaccination, according to two senior administrators familiar with the deliberations.
The White House has repeatedly ruled out a so-called national vaccination pass in the face of opposition from Conservatives who have raised concerns about the overwhelming power of the government and discrimination against Americans who choose not to be vaccinated.
A doctor associated with the White House said the White House doctors were generally supportive for proof of vaccination. “Jeff Zients is proof of the vaccination,” said the person. “He believes the Biden team has real political ramifications that look like vaccination certificates. He thinks politically, but the scientific proof of vaccination is everything. “
“I think Zients is ultimately the decision maker,” agreed an airline lobbyist. “He was certainly the one [airline] CEOs met and talked to them. “
The White House did not respond directly to Zients criticism. However, it countered that it was focused on safely resuming international travel.
“It is business critical that we make a decision about travel restrictions with the best data available and incredible precision,” said Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesman, in a statement. “We take these decisions incredibly seriously, and the interagency working groups are united and steadfastly focused on getting this right.”
Last month the government set up four working groups with representatives from various US agencies and officials from Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the UK to find a way to lift the restrictions. The groups – led by the White House Covid Response Team and the National Security Council – include representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Department of State, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the Department of Transportation. You have yet to outline a plan and publicly White House officials have only said that they are “following the science” and listening to public health officials.
Zients gave reporters a little more information on Friday morning, saying that any decision on travel bans is guided by “many variables, including case numbers, vaccination rates and the prevalence of all variants, including the delta variant.” However, the government has not disclosed what benchmarks must be met before the restrictions are lifted, which is frustrating lobbyists.
“You just have no answer. To me it feels like this is a ‘We’ll know when we see it’ and they don’t want to be bound by certain criteria, ”said the airline lobbyist.
Earlier this week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo – who is not a member of the working groups – said she is pushing for restrictions to be relaxed, but US health officials remain concerned about the possibility of further outbreaks.
“I push really hard,” Raimondo told Reuters. “The CDC is nervous and it’s hard to tell if people are vaccinated. There is no reliable vaccination record and that is a major hurdle. “
But on Thursday, a Commerce Department official evaded questions in support of Raimondo.
“We recognize the importance of international travel,” said the official. “The best step in reopening travel is to get more people vaccinated in the US and around the world. All decisions about reopening international travel are guided by our public health and medical experts. “
The deliberations come at a time when Covid-19 infection rates attributable to the highly communicable Delta variant are rising in states in the Midwest and the South, where vaccination rates remain below the national average. Top health officials are increasingly concerned about the transmission rate in the unvaccinated communities and the possibility that the Delta variant could lead to large new outbreaks before schools reopen. These public health concerns, a White House official said, trump any worries about the economic impact of the restrictions.
At a press conference on Thursday, Biden and Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to provide more information on when the restrictions will be lifted in the coming days. He said he consulted Zients when Merkel raised the issue during their bilateral talks earlier in the day.
“I’ll be able to answer that question for you in the next few days, if it is likely,” said Biden. “I’m waiting to hear from our people, our Covid team, when this should be done.”
Critics of the bans say it’s not just economic concerns that drive their opposition – there is also no scientific justification for restricting entry to the country for foreigners who have received a Covid vaccine.
“The travel bans and which countries are affected make no sense. They don’t make scientific sense or, frankly, common sense, ”said Leana Wen, emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “It seems to be due to the… squeamishness of the Biden administration about vaccine verification. It is time for them to get over it and see that vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. “
The bans go back to last year when former President Donald Trump closed the US off to most Europeans as well as travelers from other countries such as China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Iran. Trump lifted some bans when he left office, but Biden reinstated them and kept them.
Exceptions may be granted to some travelers, including US citizens, green card holders, their spouses and children, as well as diplomats, students, journalists, and those who work in “critical infrastructure” or “significant economic activity” areas.
But some other classes of visa holders are out of luck, as are casual tourists. Likewise, binational couples who are not married, thousands of whom have joined forces in an online movement called #LoveIsNotTourism to put pressure on the Biden government to lift restrictions. They have shared thousands and thousands of tweets, videos and pictures on social media urging the government to lift the ban or at least give them more information.
A senior executive at a major U.S. airline said the industry had shown administration how to run self-administered tests when booking travel and attach test results to boarding passes and vaccination status to frequent flyer numbers.
“We saw this kind of caution from the CDC during the COVID crisis,” the executive said. “I don’t want to question the science, but a lot of scientific evidence would certainly suggest that the protection that vaccines provide should be a way of opening up international travel.”
However, oversight of international travel is split among a number of different federal agencies, making it harder for a single cabinet member to take the lead in order to move faster.
“There is no clear cabinet agency that can do something about the slowness of the White House,” said Stewart Verdery, a lobbyist who has been a former deputy secretary of the Homeland Security during President George W. Bush’s tenure.
German officials raised the issue of the US travel ban directly with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to the country in late June, according to two senior officials with knowledge of the matter. Although the US was expected to lift the restrictions, officials said Blinken said at the time that the government was still considering its options and had not yet made a final decision. The same officials told POLITICO that German officials have since urged the government for a specific response on the matter.
“Our travel policy is not only lacking in rationality, it is also very damaging to America,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law in Georgetown who advised the Biden government informally.
Gostin praised Zients’ work to fight the pandemic over the past six months, but said further restricting international travel was a blind spot.
“He’s smart,” said Gostin. “He followed the evidence. But in this case I think he’s more focused on the political optics because I don’t think there is any good evidence that our current travel policy makes us safe. “
Erin Banco, Eugene Daniels, Daniel Lippman, and Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report.