BRUSSELS (NYTIMES) – In a rush of hope that Europe has turned the page on its Covid-19 pandemic ordeal, the European Union on Friday (June 18) urged its member countries to open their doors to United States leisure travellers after more than a year of tight restrictions and economic slump.
Most countries are expected to open to Americans immediately – if they have not already – including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, among others.
For the tourism powerhouses of Europe, especially, the ruling offered long-awaited relief that they could begin recouping their economic losses from the pandemic as summer weather arrives.
“We have a lot of American guests and we actually stayed in touch with them over the pandemic,” said Mr Richard Fischer, 37, a general manager at the Circus Hotel, in the heart of Berlin.
“They are really looking forward to coming and we are looking forward to having them!”
A recent rise of cases in Europe involving coronavirus variants prompted some caution about the EU’s move and calls for continued vigilance. But after an early struggle to secure vaccines for many Europeans, the improvements in vaccination and case counts that allow the opening are crucial signals that the European bloc can still deliver for its members in times of trouble – a significant moment of cohesion in the wake of Britain’s exit from the union.
Friday’s decision was made by Europe’s economy ministers, who agreed to add the US to a list of countries considered safe from an epidemiological point of view.
That means that travellers from those countries should be free to enter the bloc even if they are not fully vaccinated, on the basis of a polymerase chain reaction test showing no active coronavirus infection.
But the EU cannot compel member nations to open to US visitors. Each country is free to keep or impose more stringent restrictions, including obligations to quarantine upon arrival or to undergo a series of further tests.
The opening is also, so far, just one-way: Europeans are still barred from entering the US for nonessential travel even if they have been fully vaccinated, following a sweeping travel ban announced by former president Donald Trump in March last year and extended in January by President Joe Biden.
Countries like Greece and Spain, more heavily dependent on tourism, already moved in recent weeks to reopen to tourists from outside the EU, including from the US. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, criticised those early moves.
Anticipating the ruling, France on Wednesday began laying the groundwork for more visitors, saying it was ending a mandate on mask-wearing outdoors and lifting a night-time curfew. The result was a national sigh of relief that cafe life could fully return.
On Thursday, France placed the US and Canada in its “green” category of countries, opening the door for tourists.
But across Europe, not all the news has been good.
The Delta variant of the coronavirus is prompting serious concerns in some countries, including Britain, where a rise in cases from the variant prompted the country on Monday to delay by a month a much-anticipated reopening that had been heralded as “freedom day”.
Portugal reopened access to visitors coming from the US on Tuesday, but that coincided with an uptick in infections and the highest daily number of new cases since March. On Friday, a weekend lockdown was announced in the region of the capital, Lisbon, to contain the rising caseload.
Last summer, more open travel between European countries was blamed for deadly surges in cases. But more than half of EU residents have now received at least one vaccine shot, creating better conditions for opening economies and restoring freer travel. Still, worries remain about opening up while highly contagious new variants are spreading.
“Bringing back travel between continents is a good thing, but it is not risk-free,” said Dr Marc Van Ranst, one of Belgium’s top virus experts and a government adviser.
“Loosening travel restrictions during the summer period will inevitably lead to the spread of the Delta variant, also in countries where it is not established yet.”
Dr Van Ranst said he did not expect a major surge in infections like the one last autumn, but he emphasised the importance of a second vaccine dose to provide adequate protection.
Even as it begins this next phase of reopening, the European bloc has maintained a so-called emergency brake, a legal tool that allows it to quickly impose more restrictions.
For some southern European countries, badly needing an influx of tourism revenue, the decision to open to Americans could not wait. And many others said formal openings would come within a few days.
In April, Greece abolished the requirement to quarantine for all EU residents – as well as travellers from many third countries, including the US and Britain – provided they had proof of vaccination, recovery from the disease or a negative coronavirus test.
Italy will open its doors beginning on Monday to travellers from EU countries, the US, Canada and Japan under similar parameters, its health authorities said. Germany announced that it would let in all Americans starting Sunday, regardless of their vaccination status.
In spring last year, to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the EU largely blocked the arrival of external travellers. There were a few exceptions for nations that met specific criteria, including low infection rates, as well as more general conditions like the overall response to Covid-19 and the reciprocity of outside countries in welcoming European visitors.
By introducing these less precise requirements, the bloc gained more discretion in choosing which countries to include in the list.
China fulfils the quantitative criteria, for instance, but the entry of Chinese travellers is conditional upon reciprocity. The reciprocity requirement seems to have been dropped in the case of the US.
The European Commission said on Friday that it was “hopeful” that the US would relax its travel ban soon.