‘The experience was stressful’: US drops travel ban, welcomes international tourists after more than 600 days – USA TODAY

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A rush of international travelers is headed into the United States  Monday as the COVID-19 travel ban ended at midnight Eastern time and people from dozens of countries begin flooding in, more than 600 days since they were barred from entry.

That’s more than 86 weeks. Nearly 20 months. Enough time for grandchildren to be born, or for couples to lose track of the number of nights they fell asleep to FaceTime calls with their partner. Long enough to lose hope in a U.S. vacation or honeymoon after having to delay plans over and over. 

Lines began forming at the Canada and Mexico borders well before daybreak, and eager travelers boarded flights from Europe, including dueling departures from London’s Heathrow airport. The U.S.-Mexico border is typically the world’s busiest border crossing, with about 350 million people crossing annually.

The new U.S. entry requirements require foreign air passengers to test negative for the coronavirus before boarding a plane to the country and, if they are 18 or older, show proof of full vaccination. Travelers entering the U.S. on land or by ferry for nonessential reasons must show proof of vaccination. Although federal officials had warned of the potential for long lines at entry points, there seemed to be few delays as visitors arrived by land and air.

It’s a long-awaited moment for travelers from more than 30 countries. The U.S. initiated its first COVID-19-related travel ban on China in February 2020. By the end of March, it had added travel bans on the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iran and 26 countries in the European Schengen Area. Brazil, India and South Africa were later added to the list.

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► US drops travel ban Nov. 8: Expect bottlenecks at airports under strict entry rules

►Vacation travel: Hawaii opening for fully vaccinated international travelers, but some virus restrictions linger

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US ends travel ban: Emotional reunions at airports across the country

After more than 600 days, a rush of international travelers were welcomed into the U.S.

Staff video, USA TODAY

Changes affect most air travelers

Arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson’s Atlanta International Airport from Korea, Seongbin Woo, 26, said his travel experience for his first U.S. visit was “not that smooth,” largely because he had to rush to get test results back before departing Seoul. Although Korean nationals were not banned from travel to the U.S., anyone arriving as of Monday must follow new protocols, including showing proof of vaccination.

“I heard that everyone here is not wearing masks, so it’s good for me because I am tired of masks,” he said. He added he is still concerned about getting sick.

Ivana Pedroso, 30, tearily reunited with her parents as they arrived from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Pedroso lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she’s a graduate student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. She had been able to visit Brazil several times, but this is the first time her parents will see the house she bought.

“It’s great. Exciting. I have been waiting for this moment for two years because she doesn’t know my house,” Pedroso said. “They don’t know where I live. So I’ve been waiting for this moment for two years.”

Pedroso said her parents will stay for her graduation in December, on a trip they’ve been rescheduling for two frustrating years. Her parents said the flights and border control checks went smoothly, and they were confident they would be safe.

“She was a little bit nervous, but since they followed the protocols and all the companies, Delta Airlines and the airport followed the protocols with COVID, everything was OK,” Pedroso said of her mom. “Sanitizers and masks all the time. They’re good.”

Waiting for “my guy,” Deb Halleck, 61, wore a Manchester United jersey waiting for Stephen Donnelly to arrive in Atlanta from England via Amsterdam. Wearing a similar jersey, Donnelly strode through the terminal and swept her into a hug that seemed to make time stop. The two had been friends for years but this summer realized they wanted more.

“We’ve just been friends and recently, more than that, so just excited,” Halleck said moments before he arrived. “I can’t wait.”

Since July, they’ve talked on the phone every day and FaceTimed. Every week they make dinner together, long distance, and share a meal. Donnelly also buys her flowers and takes a picture and sends them to her weekly. Donnelly, 62, said the mood was apprehensive on the plane due to the new rules, but was happy to finally be in the U.S. with Halleck.

What are their plans now? “She’s in charge. I just go with the flow,” Donnelly said.

By late afternoon the arrivals terminal at began filling with loved ones awaiting passengers on a string of flights from cities like Amsterdam, Frankfurt and London, along with other places not previously banned.

All eyes were either staring down the corridor at the sliding doors coming from customs or glued to their phones. Locals eagerly checked to see how much longer it would take for their family, friends and significant  others to make it through customs.

One woman remained dedicated to holding up a sign that said  #HappyMama while another family, whose kids had been holding up “Welcome Home” signs set them down, sitting in the floor to wait. They had waited this long. What’s a little longer?

— Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Scattered delays create a ‘stressful’ experience

Julien Yomtov of Paris said he faced several frustrating delays leaving France – first at security and then again when the plane’s departure was delayed an hour. He said he’s excited to get back to Las Vegas, traveling via Los Angeles, to play in the World Series of Poker, which he normally does annually with his brother.

“The experience was stressful because the employees are (not) ready to welcome so many travelers,” he told USA TODAY via Whatsapp. “Hope in LAX it will be easier.”

Although Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world, the international terminal’s arrival hall on Monday, which was almost tranquil and relatively empty through early afternoon. Many fellow passengers made connections to other cities, and those who made Atlanta their final destination described their trips as smooth and even “better than before.”

— Bailey Schulz, Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Mexico border busy … then quiet

After a busy few hours after midnight ET at the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border crossing in Texas, the normally bustling border crossing fell quiet. Traffic was minimal at crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and passenger vehicles zipped up the El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas freely, no line to stop them.

“I’ve sold hardly anything,” said newspaper salesman José Fierro, whose rack was still filled with El Diario newspapers and PM tabloids at 8 a.m. He had been there on the curb since 3 a.m., he said. There was 6 a.m. traffic, then nothing. “Everyone crossed yesterday, panicked about how the lines were going to be today.”

Constantino Castellanos, 68, and his wife, Lizbeth, 62, bought quesadillas at the foot of the Bridge of the Americas, a street vendor handing over a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic.

They could take their time. The bridge – usually a wall of slow-moving cars and trucks – was an empty ribbon of asphalt. The border had been closed to tourists or people visiting family, although a wide variety of essential workers had been permitted to cross during the closure. During  that time, Mexican nationals holding tourist cards were banned from traveling over the land border; air travel between points in the interior of both countries never ceased.

“It’s been two years,” said Lizbeth Castellanos. “We’re going to Marshalls and Walmart.”

The crossing reopened at just after midnight Eastern time. At 6 a.m. Eastern, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported no significant crossing delays at either the Mexico or Canada borders.

Susana Hernández of Juárez was crossing for the first time since the pandemic restrictions to buy clothes in El Paso for her business. She smiled and flashed her vaccine card.

“We’re happy,” she said. “We’re home, we feel like we’re back home.”

Cross-border traffic of essential travelers between El Paso and Juárez reached nearly 800,000 crossings of passenger vehicles in August, according to the Border Region Modeling Project at the University of Texas at El Paso. 

“Nobody anticipated that this pandemic would last as long as it has, in terms of travel restrictions,” said Hector Mancha, U.S. Customs and Border Protection director of field operations in El Paso. “People have not crossed over and visited with family in going on two years… Unfortunately, the pandemic has kept us from (reopening). I think it’s overdue.” 

— Lauren Villagran, Martha PskowskiEl Paso Times 

‘Welcome back world’

Times Square was relatively quiet Monday morning as the city that never sleeps prepared to welcome vaccinated international tourists back to the U.S. 

Around 8:45 a.m., the Times Square Alliance unfurled a “Welcome Back World” sign on the Red Steps in Times Square. 

The Steps, considered an iconic New York landmark for tourists, had about 190,000 people walk by them each day before the pandemic, according to the Times Square Alliance, the not-for-profit group that maintains it. At the pandemic’s worst, that number dropped to 30,000, and New York businesses hope the flood of tourists will boost their finances.

TJ Witham, the vice president of communications for the Times Square Alliance, told USA TODAY the alliance chose the red steps as it is an “iconic meeting place” for people visiting the Big Apple. 

Chris Dickson, a 41-year-old bus scheduler from Newcastle, England, flew to New York City on Monday for 48 hours, using credit from a British Airways trip he’d had to cancel seven months ago.

Dickson planned to drop his bag at his Brooklyn hotel and start exploring the city he last visited more than two years ago.

“I just wanted to come to America at the first opportunity,’’ he said. “I’m going to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m going to go through Central Park, I’m going to do some running, some jogging in that area. I’m just going to enjoy the weather and enjoy being back in America.’’

Mainda Kiwelu, 45, arrived in New York on the second British Airways flight of the day. She said this was her first trip to the U.S. in about five or six years, and was hoping to visit the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park later this week, after work meetings.

“The flight was ok,” Kiwelu said. “It was just a bit nerve-wracking sort of doing all the logistics for the travel and making sure the vaccination certificate, app, everything works.”

— Morgan Hines, Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY

Dueling takeoffs from London to New York

A pair of simultaneous flights left London’s Heathrow airport early Monday morning, taking off on parallel runways and following similar flight paths for New York’s JFK International Airport. British Airways Flight 1 and Virgin Atlantic Flight 3 took off at 3:51 a.m. ET and landed within minutes of each other. The airlines are rivals but teamed up to commemorate the reopening of foreign travel to the U.S., and British Airways’ CEO was aboard his company’s flight, which touched down about 11 a.m. ET

American Airlines, which is a BA travel partner, saw bookings from London to US surge 70 percent in the past week, with a lot of the travel for remainder of 2021, said Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja.

Clive Wartten, who runs a business-travel group in the UK, arrived on the British Airways flight and was headed for a run in Central Park before meetings with colleagues. Wartten planned to fly home Tuesday night.

“It just feels good to be back on an airplane,” he said. “There was a real buzz at the airport and aboard the aircraft, lots of cheering when we took off. It was a bit of a holiday party flight.”

Wartten, who is the CEO of the Business Travel Association, later tweeted that he made it from the plane to one of New York’s famed yellow taxis in just seven minutes.

“This is a big step for us to come back and open business travel with our US friends,” he told USA TODAY while passing through the terminal.

British Airways CEO Sean Doyle has been pushing the Biden administration to ease travel restrictions between the UK and the US for months because it is one of the busiest travel corridors in the world. At one point during the spring, he said, the second runway at Heathrow was closed because the airport hadn’t seen such a limited number of flights since World War II.

“This has been a crisis like no other,’’ he said Monday after arriving in New York.

Doyle believes the border reopening took too long – the UK and European Union started welcoming US tourists back over the summer – but on Monday said he didn’t want to dwell on the past. Instead, he gushed about what the reopening means to British Airways and its passengers.

“The North Atlantic is very important to British Airways and today’s a very, very important turning point and milestone in the future of the country,’’ he said.

Is he worried travel restrictions could return if COVID cases spike on either side of the Atlantic? 

“You always have to keep an eye on things,’’ he said. “But I do think that we’re seeing a sort of pragmatic framework emerge across a number of jurisdictions.’’

He said he hopes that that framework – basing entry requirements on vaccination and testing – remains despite any COVID trends going forward.

— Dawn Gilbertson, Morgan Hines, USA TODAY

Anticipation at airports

Ahead of the British Airways first flight arrival, family members waited in the Terminal 7 arrivals area at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is decked out with balloons and New York symbols including the back half of a taxicab filled with a floral arrangement and NYC-themed cookies. 

Louise Erebara, from Danbury, Connecticut, arrived at the airport with her family early to welcome her sister and her sister’s husband after 730 days apart. 

“It’s everything, we can’t thank British Airways enough,” a choked-up Erebara said, noting the airline paid for her relatives’ flight. “They want to reunite ex-pats and they’re doing it.” 

In Atlanta, Ari Bell, waited anxiously for her fiancé to arrive from the UK after 21 months apart. They’ve bridged the distance with Snapchat, video calls and texts, and she was waiting to surprise him at the airport as he starts a three-week visit that will include his first-ever Thanksgiving.

“He actually came over for a quick job interview in February, right before the shutdown, got back to London and then that March, everything closed up. So we’ve just kind of been hanging on a string,” Bell said. “It was a little bit confusing to get him here, just because he didn’t know he needed a negative (test) so that three days prior we actually had to make that last minute. And he came back negative. He’s already fully vaccinated. I’m vaccinated. I got my booster yesterday, just in case– I’m just excited to see him.”

Bell said she’s excited to just watch a movie together — for months, they’ve been watching movies simultaneously but separated by the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’re homebodies. We like to game together. But yeah, that’s mostly what we’re looking forward to — just being in the same space together,” she said. ““This is going to be our first Thanksgiving together, his first Thanksgiving period. He’s never celebrated. So we’re actually gonna make the big meal and have all my family come over. He’s a little nervous. But you know, he loves my dad. They’re both ex army. So they get along great.”

And Rosa Chorra, 37, eagerly awaited her parents’ arrival from Spain, waiting with her 10-month-old Aurora for their plane to land in Atland. Chorra’s parents missed her pregnancy and granddaughter’s birth, although Chorra was able to take Aurora to visit them three months ago. She said she missed having the help they could have provided with a newborn.

“It was absolutely horrible. I think it’s been the hardest time of my life. I mean, when she was born, the first months that are the hardest, and it’s been tough,” Chorra said.

— Dawn Gilbertson, Morgan Hines, Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Families begin to reunite

Simone Thies of Cologne, Germany, is flying in to see her fiancé, who she has seen just twice since the ban began– once during a trip to Aruba in June, and again when he visited her in Germany in August. Before those trips, they had been separated a year. Thies stayed overnight in a Düsseldorf hotel near the airport before catching her Delta flight, headed ultimately to Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I want to avoid stress because everything is so exciting,” she said.

Getting through the line at the Düsseldorf airport was quick — “5 minutes at most,” she said — but she had one more stop in Paris before crossing the Atlantic.

There, she had to show her passport, proof of vaccination and results of her negative coronavirus test. Even as the first person in line, the wait took about 20 minutes because one employee was still learning which documents to check, she said.

“The line is very long, but (I’m) done for now,” she said before departing.

Alan Marques said the border closure for tourists nearly ended his relationship with his boyfriend, who is a flight attendant. They’ve been together four years, but hadn’t seen each other in four months, until Marques, 33, flew in from Sao Paulo to Atlanta on Monday. He said the separation has been “very difficult and distressing,” because his boyfriend’s visits to Brazil have only been for a few hours, instead of the days they are used to.

How does it feel to be properly reunited? “So good,” he said.

— Bailey Schulz, Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Lines at the Canada-US border

At th Sweetgrass, Montana, border crossing, wait times climbed to 240 minutes — four hours — according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Normal wait time is about 45 minutes.

Windsor, Ontario, Mayor Drew Dilkens said a Canadian travel requirement – having negative polymerase chain reaction test that can cost $200 – is likely to prevent many who want to drive from Ontario to Michigan from doing so.

He explained the testing provision doesn’t make sense for day-trippers nor does it provide the kind of health assurance the government thinks it does because someone could easily contract the virus during their visit.

He wants to see that requirement lifted.

— Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press

How did the international travel ban start?

The travel ban barred most foreign nationals who had been in the listed countries in the past 14 days from entering the U.S., regardless of vaccination status. The country also cut off nonessential travel across the U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada in March 2020. 

It wasn’t until September that the White House announced that it would end the travel ban for fully vaccinated travelers – months after many other nations reopened to U.S. tourists. 

The new U.S. entry requirements, which went into effect Monday, require foreign air passengers to test negative for the virus before boarding a plane to the country and, if they are 18 or older, show proof of full vaccination. Travelers entering the U.S. on land or by ferry for nonessential reasons also need to show proof of vaccination. 

As airports and border crossings get adjusted to the new travel rules, international travelers should prepare for lines.

The first flight from a country listed the travel ban is set to fly into Chicago from Dublin just before 7 a.m. CT, according to flight tracker Flight Aware and flight-data firm OAG.

Plenty more will follow; there are more than 2 million international flights scheduled to arrive in the U.S. next month, compared to just 728,820 in December of 2020, according to OAG and Flight Aware.

— Bailey Schulz, USA TODAY

► US drops travel ban:Expect bottlenecks at airports under strict entry rules