Oh good day, as the song says. At 12:01 a.m. Sunday, June 12, the Biden administration will stop requiring air travelers en route to the United States to take a Covid-19 test within a day of boarding their flight. The removal of the test mandate will end one of the last measures put in place during the pandemic to thwart the spread of the virus by restricting travel.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Yes, many of us – vaccinated, boosted and doubly boosted – are already traveling abroad. But while the fear of serious illness subsided, the fear of suddenly testing positive, being stuck and not being able to return home remained.
On paper, there are charms for sure strength spending extra days in, say, a village in Provence, waiting for your test to come back negative. But in reality, there are big downsides: missed personal opportunities and obligations, work delays and costs – both unexpectedly extended hotel stays and repeated testing.
“There is no doubt that this testing requirement hangs over the heads of American travelers like a guillotine,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. First, you couldn’t fully enjoy the destination you’d traveled to, fearing if everything you had planned – a dinner out, a night out at a bar – could expose you to infection and result in a positive test. Second, the last day in any foreign destination inevitably revolved around the need to get tested. “And if that happened to you as a family,” Harteveldt continues, “testing and retesting could be thousands of dollars.”
All of that has now gone poof. The United States joins many European and other countries that have dropped Covid-related entry restrictions in recent months.
“I don’t know why it’s taken so long in the US,” says Paul Tumpowsky, founder and CEO of Larks Voyage, the luxury digital travel agency. He expresses the frustration of others in the travel industry, who argue that if you can’t control Covid in the general population, there’s no point in continuing to test incoming plane passengers. “From our perspective, what if people getting off an international flight are all negative? It is a self-selection group. There are positive cases everywhere else.
“I don’t know for sure why the restrictions are being lifted today, not a month or more ago,” Harteveldt says. “But the CDC is rightly very cautious. The one-day-pre-departure test was instituted late last year in the face of a rising tide of Omicron cases and deaths. The cases, hospitalizations and deaths are now trending down. And there is no doubt that lobbying by the airline and hotel industry has had some impact.”
The White House, travel industry insiders agree, has come under pressure about it throughout the spring from travel officials. “The restrictions were supposed to be lifted on April 19,” says Tumpowsky. “It’s eight weeks later now. But it’s still a great thing. We’re heading into an extremely busy time of year – summer vacation and then the ramp up of vacation. If we were to do faced with many last minute booking changes [because of positive tests]…what a waste, on top of everything else.”
It happened to me. A positive test after a business trip to South Africa a day before my scheduled departure, a canceled return flight, followed by self-isolation in a game reserve (so much for sunsets in the bush) and then in two hotels in Johannesburg. This is, as many have noted, the worst-case scenario that most of us don’t really think about in a concrete way, largely because it’s devilishly difficult to plan for.
I got away with it easily. My self-isolation only lasted three nights. No, I didn’t take the “backdoor” option reported recently by The New York Times— a flight to Canada or Mexico, which have no testing requirement, then over the border to the United States by car (the United States testing requirement did not apply land travel), followed by a domestic flight.
I got home via the “recovered from Covid” option: a positive test accompanied by a letter from a doctor saying, essentially, that based on a combination of factors (including the probable date of infection, the onset of symptoms, if any, and date of first positive test), I was medically cleared to fly. This is all sanctioned by the US government but took me most of a very nervous day to organize.
In addition to eliminating the anxiety and apprehension of a positive test, how will lifting the test mandate affect travel?
“This is good news for the travel industry,” says Harteveldt. “Hotels and airlines are already full, and the end of testing will further increase demand, and therefore prices. Business travel abroad will resume [as companies won’t worry about the additional costs of housing employees stuck abroad]. But it could make it harder to get a hotel room abroad in the short term.” It’s unclear, he points out, “whether airlines can add more flights. There are not enough pilots. The pilot shortage is what is really holding the airlines back.”
Note: Non-US citizens will still need to present proof of vaccination to travel to the United States. And the CDC said it would reevaluate lifting the testing requirement in 90 days. That is to say mid-September.
Should we be nervous?
“It’s prudent of the CDC to do that,” Harteveldt says. “We’re going to start fall, people will be spending more time indoors, and new variants might appear. But I suspect things will be fine. Enjoy the summer!”
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