Frustrated industry groups see Biden’s czar Covid as obstacle to reopening travel

Just last month, Europe eased restrictions on vaccinated U.S. travelers, and Canada announced this week that it could open its border to fully vaccinated Americans for non-essential travel as early as mid-August.

“I think the American people owe an explanation: what the hell happened? said Rep. Brian Higgins (DN.Y.), one of 75 lawmakers who sent a letter to Biden last week urging him “to start taking science-based and data-based steps to safely reopen international travel to the United States.” Senses Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) And Rick Scott (R-Fla.) Are also preparing to send a letter to Biden, according to a Democratic Senate aide.

Some senior officials in the Biden administration, including cabinet secretaries and doctors, have expressed support for easing restrictions as long as travelers entering the United States can prove they have received vaccines or provide a negative Covid test. But the administration remains reluctant to ask companies, including airlines, to require proof of vaccination, according to two senior administration officials familiar with the deliberations.

The White House has repeatedly ruled out a so-called national vaccine passport amid the backlash of Conservatives who have raised concerns about the government’s overbreadth and discrimination against Americans who choose not to vaccinate.

A doctor in contact with the White House said White House doctors are generally in favor of proof of vaccination. “Jeff Zients is the heist of the vaccination proof,” the person said. “He thinks there are real political consequences for the Biden team which looks like pro-vaccine passports. He thinks politically, but scientifically, proof of vaccination is everything.

“I think at the end of the day, yes Zients is the decision maker,” agreed an airline lobbyist. “He’s definitely the one [airline] The CEOs met and talked.

The White House did not respond directly to criticism of Zients. But he countered that he was focusing on restarting international travel safely.

“It is essential that we make a decision on travel restrictions with the best available data and incredible precision,” White House spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement. “We take these decisions incredibly seriously and the interagency working groups are united behind and resolutely focused on making things right.”

Last month, the administration set up four task forces with representatives from different U.S. agencies and officials from Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom 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 and the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Health, and Human Rights. social and transport services. They have yet to come up with a plan and publicly White House officials have only said they are “following the science” and listen to public health officials.

Zients gave reporters a bit more information on Friday morning, saying any decision on travel bans would be guided by “many variables, including case rates, vaccination rates and the prevalence of all variants,” including the Delta variant “. But the administration has not announced what benchmarks will need to be met before the restrictions are lifted, frustrating those pressing the issue.

“They just don’t have an answer. I feel like it’s a ‘We’ll find out when we see it’ and they don’t want to be tied to some criteria, ”the airline lobbyist said.

Earlier this week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo – who is not a member of the task forces – said she was pushing for the relaxation of restrictions but U.S. health officials remained concerned about the possibility of new epidemics.

“I’m pushing really hard,” said Raimondo Reuters. “The CDC is nervous and it’s hard to know if people are vaccinated. There is no reliable vaccine passport, and that’s sort of a big hurdle. “

But on Thursday, a Commerce Department official dodged questions about Raimondo’s support.

“We recognize the importance of international travel,” said the official. “The best step to reopening travel is to get more people vaccinated in the United States and around the world. Any decision to reopen international travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts. “

The deliberations come at a time when rates of Covid-19 infection attributable to the highly transmissible variant of Delta are increasing in the Midwestern and Southern states, where vaccination rates remain below the national average. Senior health officials are increasingly concerned about the rate of transmission in unvaccinated communities and the possibility that the Delta variant could cause major new epidemics before schools reopen. These public health concerns, a White House official said, outweigh any concerns about the economic impact of the restrictions.

At a press conference on Thursday, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Biden pledged to provide more information on when the restrictions will be lifted in the coming days. He said he brought in Zients when Merkel raised the issue during their bilateral talks earlier today.

“I’ll be able to answer that question for you in the next few days, when that’s likely to happen,” Biden said. “I’m waiting to hear from our people, from our Covid team, to find out when this should be done.”

Critics of the bans say it’s not just economic concerns that motivate their opposition – there is also no scientific justification for preventing foreigners who have received a Covid vaccine from entering the country.

“Travel bans and the countries involved do not make sense. They don’t make scientific sense, or frankly common sense, ”said Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor of public health at George Washington University. “This appears to be due to the reluctance of the Biden administration to check vaccines. It is time for them to get over it and see that vaccination is our way out of this pandemic.”

The bans date back to last year, when former President Donald Trump sealed off the United States to most Europeans as well as travelers from other countries, including China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Iran. Asset survey some bans as he left office, but Biden reinstated them and held them in place.

Some travelers may qualify for exemptions, including US citizens, green card holders, their spouses and children, as well as diplomats, students, journalists, and those working in fields involving “critical infrastructure” or ” significant economic activity ”.

But several other categories of visa holders are unlucky, as are occasional tourists. The same goes for binational couples who are not married, thousands of whom have banded together to form an online movement called #LoveIsNotTourism to try to pressure the Biden administration to drop the restrictions. They have shared thousands and thousands of tweets, videos and images on social media calling on the administration to lift the ban or at least give them more information.

A senior executive at a major U.S. airline said the industry has shown the administration how it can provide self-administered testing when travel is booked, as well as how it can attach test results to cards. boarding and vaccination status to frequent flyer numbers.

“We have seen this kind of caution from the CDC throughout the COVID crisis,” the executive said. “I don’t mean to question the science, but a lot of the science would certainly indicate that the protection offered by vaccines should be a route to open up international travel.”

But oversight of international travel is spread across a number of different federal agencies, making it harder for a single cabinet member to take the initiative to push for faster action.

“There is no clear Cabinet agency that can somehow push something in the face of the sluggishness of the White House,” said Stewart Verdery, a lobbyist working on the issue and former deputy secretary of the Department of Justice. homeland security under the administration of President George W. Bush.

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 familiar with the matter. Although the United States was due to announce that it would lift the restrictions, officials said Blinken indicated at the time that the administration was still studying its options and had not made a final decision. Those same officials told POLITICO that German officials have since pressured the administration for a specific answer on the matter.

“Our travel policy not only lacks rationality, but also hurts America a lot,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown professor of health law who has unofficially advised the Biden administration.

Gostin praised Zients’ work to fight the pandemic over the past six months, but said continuing to restrict international travel was a blind spot.

“He’s smart,” Gostin said. “He followed the evidence. But in this case, I think it focuses more on the political perspective, because I don’t think there is good evidence that our current travel policy is protecting us. “

Erin Banco, Eugene Daniels, Daniel Lippman, and Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report.

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