Europe Reopened to Americans. Why, It Asks, Hasn’t the U.S. Reciprocated?
MADRID – He was vaccinated in April, tested negative for coronavirus and believed he was exempt from travel restrictions.
But during a stopover in Amsterdam at the end of May, Peter Fuchs, 87, was told he could not board his flight to New York to attend the baptism of his great-granddaughter. The reason: as a European citizen, he was not allowed to enter the United States.
“I felt helpless and broken,” Mr. Fuchs said in an email from his retirement home apartment in Hanover, Germany.
In June, as the United States moved forward on its vaccination campaign, European Union leaders recommended member countries reopen their borders to Americans, an important move meant to signal what they hoped was the start of the end of the pandemic. They expected to be reimbursed in kind.
The fact that the United States remains largely closed has dismayed Europeans and frustrated their leaders, who demand that Europe’s decision to open its borders be reciprocated.
“We insist that comparable rules be applied to arrivals in both directions,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, told a press conference last week. Bloc officials have even suggested reimposing travel restrictions on American travelers.
For some European families, the continued ban has compounded one of the pandemic’s deepest sorrows – the separation itself – as loved ones fall ill across closed borders and family elders fear never to see their loved ones again.
Unmarried partners with different passports struggled to keep their relationships afloat, which spawned the popular Twitter hashtag #loveestpastourism. Europeans who have offered jobs in the United States still do not know whether to accept them.
“Now that we have vaccines, at least let the vaccinated people come,” said Michele Kastelein, a dual French-American citizen living in Portola Valley, California. His French brother Maurice had to abandon his plan to attend his son’s wedding this month, despite hopes the ban will now be lifted for Europeans like him who are vaccinated.
The ban on travel to Europe dates from the start of the pandemic. President Donald J. Trump lifted the restrictions in the final days of his tenure, but President Biden reinstated them shortly after taking office.
The White House, however, has provided little explanation as to why the restrictions persist – even though some countries with higher infection and lower vaccination rates do not face any similar bans. At a press conference last week, Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, cited medical expert advice and lingering concerns about the Delta variant.
Under current rules, virtually all residents of the European Schengen area – the passport-free zone that includes 26 countries and other entities – as well as those living in Britain and Ireland are still not allowed to travel in the USA.
Five other banned countries include those with high infection rates, such as Iran, South Africa, Brazil and India, but also China, where the rates of spread are much lower than those in the United States. United for months.
The travel ban exempts certain people, including U.S. citizens, permanent residents of the United States, and certain family members of U.S. citizens, as long as the American is under the age of 21.
People from prohibited countries can still enter the United States if they spend the 14 days before arriving in a country that is not on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list.
The latter condition led Shelley Murray, an American strength and conditioning trainer, and her partner, Viktor Pesta, a mixed martial arts athlete from the Czech Republic, on an odyssey that crossed not only their home countries, but also Turkey and the Dominican Republic.
The two had moved into a house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida shortly before the pandemic when Mr Pesta was called up on a coaching assignment in the Czech Republic. The European Union and the United States banned two-way travel soon after, and the two were separated for six months, Ms Murray said.
She was the first to leave her country last August after the Czech Republic created a so-called “sweetheart” exception that allowed Americans to visit unmarried partners. But when Mr Pesta wanted to return to the United States last October, he had to spend two weeks in Turkey – a country not on the CDC’s banned list – so he would be allowed entry.
This spring, shortly after Mr. Pesta was vaccinated in the United States, he returned to the Czech Republic for a mixed martial arts fight. When they wished to return to Florida this summer, the couple traveled to the Dominican Republic to allow the return of Mr Pesta, a visit that lasted seven weeks due to visa delays.
Ms Murray said her main frustration was that US rules caused the couple to stay in countries with higher rates of infection than in much of Europe, supposedly as a precaution against infected travelers.
“It was a bit absurd for us,” she said.
In another part of Fort Lauderdale is the empty two-bedroom apartment of Elisabeth Haselbach, a Swiss citizen who bought it four years ago as an investment and vacation property.
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But Ms Haselbach has not been able to see her home since before the pandemic. She continues to pay taxes and condominium fees, but is worried that she was unable to strengthen her home for the hurricane season, which lasts from June to November.
She said the situation had stunned her: She found Mr. Trump’s behavior on the international stage unreasonable, but she didn’t expect to think the same of Mr. Biden at the closed borders.
“I was the Democrats’ No.1 fan,” she said.
Frustration over the ban led Marius Van Der Veeken, a retired finance professional in the Netherlands, to write to Mr Biden to tell him he wished to see his family in Michigan.
Mr Van Der Veeken, 64, and his wife, Anne-Mieke, 61, had just met their grandchildren, now aged 3 and 4, before the pandemic prevented travel. Having received the AstraZeneca vaccine in March, they believed they would soon have the chance to see the children, along with their daughter and son-in-law. Instead, they continue to meet every Sunday by video call.
Their grandchildren recognize them – call them Opa and Oma, grandfather and grandmother in Dutch – but Mr Van Der Veeken fears that long distance calls are not enough and that he is wasting precious years.
“It is important now to establish a relationship with them,” he said. “My big point is that travel restrictions should make the difference between family relationships and tourists. “
Mr Fuchs, the German pensioner, had similar feelings when he was stranded on his flight in May to attend the christening of his great-granddaughter, his first.
His daughter Natascha Sabert, a U.S. citizen, said U.S. consular officials mistakenly told her he could enter the country as a father. But when he reached Amsterdam Airport, he was told he was not eligible because his daughter was over 21.
Ms Sabert was concerned that her father, who is hearing impaired, would not be able to return to Germany that night from Amsterdam. Airport officials told her there were no more flights to Hanover that day, she said.
“I said, ‘You can’t push him in a wheelchair somewhere in the airport around the corner and leave him there,’ she recalls.
Eventually, Mr. Fuchs was put on a flight to Hamburg, where a relative helped him board a train to Hanover.
The experience left Ms Sabert apprehensive to ask her father to try to make the trip again. But she also feels that time is running out and wants the family to reunite.
“It’s about those last moments before we say goodbye,” she said.
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