Europe Mulls Extending Ban on US Travelers Amid New Outbreaks

The U.S. has become the hardest-hit country in the world with more than 123,500 deaths and about 2.4 million confirmed cases.

People cross the border between France and Spain at Behobie, France, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

(CN) — Faced with new outbreaks of coronavirus within its borders and a surge of infections around the world, the European Union may extend a ban on travelers from the United States and other countries where the deadly virus has not been brought under control.

Travel between the United States and Europe largely stopped in March when Europe found itself overwhelmed by a wave of infections from the novel coronavirus. First, U.S. President Donald Trump infuriated European leaders by banning travelers from Europe. A few days later, the EU closed its borders to outsiders, including Americans, on March 16.

International travel has allowed the virus to spread from continent to continent and travel bans are among the tools governments are using to rein in a virus that is spread through droplets when people cough and sneeze. Travelers have been linked to outbreaks in many countries.  

A ban on Americans would be an embarrassment for Trump and underscore how his administration’s handling of the pandemic has been messy, contradictory and unscientific. 

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is devising recommendations on how to open up the bloc’s borders on July 1 to third countries, such as the U.S., without running the risk of reintroducing the deadly virus.

Under its criteria, the commission says it wants to only allow people to travel from countries where the virus is under control. If this policy is carried out, it could leave the U.S. off the list of safe countries because the virus continues to spread rapidly in many American states.

“Our main concern is health,” said Laura Berard, a commission spokeswoman, in an email to Courthouse News on Wednesday.

She said the commission wants to allow nonessential travel from countries where the coronavirus situation “is as good as or better than in the EU.”

In this regard, the U.S. and Europe are far apart.

The U.S. has become the hardest-hit country in the world with more than 123,500 deaths and about 2.4 million confirmed cases. Moreover, new infections continue to be found. On Tuesday, the U.S. reported more than 36,000 new infections and 863 new deaths, according to a tally by Worldometer.

Two older women wear facemasks as they push their walkers on a shopping street in Halle, Belgium, on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

By comparison, Europe is at a stage in its epidemic where the virus appears to be largely under control. The virus has caused about 175,500 deaths in the EU and a few neighboring countries inside its economic zone, such as Switzerland and Iceland.

But since the end of April, infections and deaths in Europe have been falling steadily, with the exception of the United Kingdom, which is only now beginning to emerge from its coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, the U.K. announced pubs and restaurants will be allowed to reopen on July 4. The U.K. is the worst-hit European country with about 43,000 deaths.

The EU is considering using per capita infection rates in determining which countries are safe to allow entry, according to the New York Times, which first reported the U.S. may be left off the EU’s safe list.

On average, the EU is registering about 16 new infections per 100,000 people while the U.S. is reporting about 107 new infections per 100,000 people, the newspaper reported Tuesday.

Europe remains at risk from the virus not just from foreign travelers but also from within its borders. In recent days, local outbreaks in Germany and Portugal have given rise to concerns the virus may make a comeback.

This week, a new lockdown was imposed on about 360,000 people in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany after about 1,500 workers at Germany’s largest meat factory tested positive. The factory hires low-wage workers from Central and Eastern Europe who often find themselves living in small rundown apartment blocks.

The lockdown on the district of Guetersloh means schools, nurseries, cinemas, bars and restaurants, swimming pools and gyms are being shuttered. The risk of the outbreak spreading in Germany may be low because only about 24 people outside the meat factory have tested positive.

In Portugal, a curfew and restrictions on gatherings have been reimposed in the capital Lisbon because of an uptick in new infections. Portugal has been a success story in the fight against the virus, reporting a total of about 40,000 cases and 1,543 deaths linked to Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Since early May, the EU has been gingerly reopening borders and lifting restrictions in its slow recovery from the catastrophic health crisis that threatens to devastate economies. On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund said it predicts the global economy will shrink by 4.9%, the worst contraction since World War II. The new estimate is significantly worse than a previous prediction in April projecting a 3% decline in global activity.  

Tourism plays a big role in European economies, accounting for about 9.5% of the EU’s gross domestic product in 2019 and the paralysis in travel caused by the pandemic threatens millions of tourism and travel jobs.

Closing the door on millions of American tourists then will not be an easy decision as EU officials and national governments hammer out a strategy on reopening the EU’s borders to the rest of the world. But EU officials say they will be guided by scientific criteria and not make an exception for the U.S., according to media reports.  

The EU is expected to issue its recommendations next week before July 1. The commission’s guidelines on border policy are not binding on EU member states, but national governments will be under a lot of pressure to follow its advice.

It is likely the EU will recommend barring travelers from other virus hot spots, including Russia, Brazil and India. EU officials say the list of countries deemed safe will be regularly updated, which means that even if the U.S. is left off the safe list it could be reinstated once the EU deems it has the virus under control.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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