U.S. Travel Ban Ends, and Europeans Head Overseas Again

Europeans were kept apart from family and friends as the ban dragged on long after E.U. leaders had opened their borders.

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BRUSSELS — For months, Europeans and their leaders seethed about what they considered unfair treatment from the United States, which kept a Covid-related travel ban in place for much longer than Europe did.

Even now, as the United States is opening up again to travelers, many remain wary. Some were planning to jump on planes as fast as possible — just in case the welcome mat is suddenly pulled away again.

Laurence Tesson was one of them.

The fear that something could still go wrong haunted her as she prepared to see her son in Los Angeles for the first time in three years. In the hours before her flight was to leave from Paris, Ms. Tesson ran through her checklist of worries:

Her train from Lille in northern France to Charles de Gaulle airport could hit a wild boar. The train conductor might not show up. Or maybe a rail union would call a strike. And, of course, her U.S.-required coronavirus test could be positive — meaning no flying to the United States for her.

“Only when I set a foot at the Los Angeles airport will I be relieved,” Ms. Tesson, 54, said this weekend.

Her flight took off at 11:15 a.m. on Monday, one of the first planes heading to the United States from Europe after the lifting of an 18-month ban on travelers without American passports. Such travelers from 33 countries, among them Britain, Brazil, India, China and European Union states, can now enter the United States with proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test no more than 72 hours old.

The travel ban did not just separate couples and families. It also left a gaping hole in the U.S. tourism industry. And it frustrated European leaders, who struggled to understand why it was still in place.

The lifting of the travel ban also signals the end of a diplomatic tussle between European leaders and the Biden administration, which has tried to ease strained relation with leaders on the continent.

When the European Union asked its member countries to reopen their borders to U.S. travelers in June, their leaders expected that the Biden administration would soon reciprocate. After all, the European Union was closing in on American vaccination rates — it overtook them in July — and its member countries were containing coronavirus infections even as cases were rising in the United States.

But the summer passed, and U.S. borders remained closed.

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A plane flying north of Paris in August, when the U.S. travel ban remained in effect.Credit…Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

“We must solve this problem as soon as possible,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in unusually blunt remarks in August. “This cannot drag on for weeks.”

It dragged on for months.

Countless Europeans missed important family gatherings like reunions, births, weddings and funerals. Thousands turned to social media to pressure governments for an end to the travel ban, using the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism.

Eirini Linardaki, a French-Greek visual artist who was planning to fly to New York on Monday to be reunited with her partner, said she had felt injustice over the summer as she saw planes from the United States landing in Paris. “The idea that we couldn’t visit our loved one in the country they are, we as Europeans were not familiar with that,” she said about prepandemic travel.

Ms. Linardaki, 45, is still not taking anything for granted: “I keep wondering, is this real?”

Even with the borders set to reopen, some Europeans are still trying to comprehend what they have been through, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in immigration and trade. “This has separated lots of couples and families, and went on much longer than most people thought it would,” he said, “so there has been enormous frustration.”

In recent months, Mr. Alden said, some European leaders have grown frustrated with the Biden administration over issues like the haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then came a diplomatic crisis with France, which reacted with fury after Australia canceled its submarine deal in favor of an agreement with the United States and Britain.

Lifting the travel ban was one step toward the larger goal of easing tensions. “It was a bone that Biden could throw to the Europeans,” Mr. Alden said. Another, he said, was the deal recently announced to roll back the tariffs on steel and aluminum that had been imposed during the Trump administration.

As travelers prepared to fly to the United States this week, many reported mixed emotions.

“More stressed than excited,” said Line Baumann, a 23-year-old from Denmark who was scheduled to fly to Denver on Monday to be reunited with her boyfriend. “We were let down so many times.”

Some plan short trips.

In Northeastern England, Jonny Grant was getting ready to spend a week in Orlando, Fla., so his 4-year-old could discover Walt Disney World.

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Kennedy Airport in October. The travel ban left a gaping hole in the U.S. tourism industry.Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Others, like Nick Vermeyen, a 32-year-old living in Belgium and flying to Los Angeles on Saturday to be with his boyfriend, plan to be gone for as long as travel rules allow them — “89 days,” Mr. Vermeyen said.

“We haven’t seen each other in two years,” he said, “so we thought: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve. Why not?”

The Biden administration is lifting the ban weeks ahead of the holiday season, just as Europe faces a near-record level of coronavirus infections. And although 65 percent of E.U. residents have been vaccinated, there are wide discrepancies within the bloc, with most Eastern European countries lagging behind.

That has left many Europeans worried that travel restrictions could be reimposed soon, although Mr. Alden, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said he doubted the Biden administration would reverse course in the weeks to come, citing pressure from airlines and foreign partners.

Many said they had jumped on the opportunity to fly as soon as they could, no matter the cost.

“Hopefully it won’t be 1.5 years again,” said Luise Greve, a 23-year-old student from Germany who was scheduled to fly on Monday to Kansas City to visit her boyfriend.

Claudio Tomassi, a 46-year-old Italian manager living in Pennsylvania, came back to his hometown near Rome in September because his mother’s health was deteriorating. Her health improved soon after his return, Mr. Tomassi said, but he was stuck in Italy, far from his wife and two children.

When the Biden administration announced in September that the travel ban would be lifted, demand spiked in Italy for U.S.-bound plane tickets, Mr. Tomassi said, with one-way flights skyrocketing to about 1,400 euros, or about $1,620, more than four times their usual price. But he bought one for Tuesday anyway, worried that with the virus again spreading throughout Europe, the rules might change once more.

“I got scared,” Mr. Tomassi said. “They could decide to not allow flights, and what do I do?”

In the end, the decision was clear.

“My family is there and I am stuck here,” Mr. Tomassi said. “I want to go home.”

Reporting was contributed by Emma Bubola in Rome, Raphael Minder in Madrid, and Christopher Schuetze in Berlin.

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