International travelers still face maze of restrictions

211215-Atlanta-A passenger makes their way through the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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211215-Atlanta-A passenger makes their way through the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

For an ever-so-brief 27 days, it seemed that international travel was on the path to recovery in America.

With the world opening up more for globetrotters, pandemic restrictions in the United States were eased Nov. 8 for travelers from 33 countries, provided the foreign nationals had proof of vaccination and negative COVID-19 tests. That prompted a rush on bookings that drove a 450% jump in Delta Air Lines reservations made outside the country.

Many Americans, too, were itching to take overseas trips.

But, before many of the would-be travelers could say bon voyage, new restrictions were instituted. Now, many in Atlanta and elsewhere are holding their breaths as they wait to see how much of an impact omicron, a new coronavirus variant, will have.

The omicron variant, discovered in late November, has already led to a United States ban on foreign nationals traveling from eight countries in southern Africa and stricter COVID-19 testing requirements for all coming here. The new rules have been in effect since Dec. 6.

Other countries also have tightened restrictions.

Newnan resident Andy Bush, who was forced to cancel a trip to Europe last year because of the pandemic, has rebooked for June. He’s looking forward to traveling to Germany, Italy, Greece and France, but he knows the coronavirus might once again disrupt his plans. “The only thing we can do is plan and hope for the best,” he said.

Many worry that the new travel rules that are cropping up everywhere will hurt industries that are already struggling.

Some travel industry lobbying groups and others have criticized the U.S. travel ban and stressed the importance of keeping borders open. They argue that bans do not keep out omicron, which is already spreading around the world.

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211216-Atlanta-Covid safety messages greet holiday travelers in the A concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

211216-Atlanta-Covid safety messages greet holiday travelers in the A concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

caption arrowCaption
211216-Atlanta-Covid safety messages greet holiday travelers in the A concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Loews Atlanta managing director Dale McDaniel said the travel restrictions may cut into attendance for international conventions and meetings, which can also affect hotel bookings.

Travel restrictions “are kind of a blunt intervention, and they’re pretty disruptive,” said Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health research fellow Stephen Kissler.

Kissler said travel bans “can even interrupt the progress of science. ... It’s harder to share information when travel is restricted.”

But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House press briefing that the international travel policies “have helped to keep Americans safe” and that the government is “continuing to follow the science in this area.”

Kissler also noted the importance of exercising precautions in big gatherings, but said, “Unfortunately travel is one big gathering from end to end.”

Kissler stressed the importance of testing before traveling, wearing a good mask and distancing from others as much as possible.

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201215-Atlanta- Delta Airlines unveils its rapid COVID testing setup at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 15, 2020. Passengers on Delta flights to Amsterdam and Rome will be tested before boarding their airplanes and will not have to quarantine upon arrival at their destination. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

201215-Atlanta- Delta Airlines unveils its rapid COVID testing setup at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 15, 2020. Passengers on Delta flights to Amsterdam and Rome will be tested before boarding their airplanes and will not have to quarantine upon arrival at their destination. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

caption arrowCaption
201215-Atlanta- Delta Airlines unveils its rapid COVID testing setup at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 15, 2020. Passengers on Delta flights to Amsterdam and Rome will be tested before boarding their airplanes and will not have to quarantine upon arrival at their destination. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

U.S. State Department officials say they will continue to monitor the spread of the omicron variant.

No one expects this to be the last time restrictions are put in place.

“You can’t really make long-term plans for international air travel, given how we went from 0 to 100 in less than a week on this one variant,” said Fox Rothschild aviation attorney Mark McKinnon during a presentation on the effects of COVID-19 on the aviation industry. “Another variant could literally arrive at any time.”

He said contingency plans are key because “this is probably going to happen again, that we’re going to have another variant, and things are going to change very quickly.”

Meanwhile, frequently changing restrictions around the globe continue to complicate the travel plans of Americans.

There are different mandates for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers, different rules for tests and the timing of them, and some countries require forms to be completed in advance of a trip.

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211215-Atlanta-Passengers arrive for their flights at the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

211215-Atlanta-Passengers arrive for their flights at the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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211215-Atlanta-Passengers arrive for their flights at the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Shelly Bisanz, who works for HCI Travel in Atlanta, said travelers also need to allow extra time at the airport and to have backup plans for meeting testing requirements, in case something unexpected happens.

For one of her clients — who was traveling from the U.S. to Germany, the Netherlands and England — meeting each country’s requirements at the right time “was literally like jumping through hoops,” Bisanz said.

She created a spreadsheet for the client, with a checklist laying out what he had to do each day.

Travelers “need to be checking the requirements for each country they may be traveling to, and they need to be checking it pretty much almost daily,” Bisanz said. “The changes are occurring constantly.”

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