Aug 23, 2021

United States should follow the lead of foreign governments on Covid travel

Checking a digital health pass in a French cafe

It's time for the U.S. federal government, U.S. airlines and the CDC to get serious about making travel safer for Americans during Covid.

Chances are if you board an international flight from the U.S., the passengers and crew will have been vaccinated and/or have tested negative for Covid no more than 72 hours before. 

That's the rule for U.S. visitors entering most countries. Once you arrive in France, Italy and a growing number of other destinations, you won't be able to enter a cafe, restaurant, local train, museum, hotel or department store without showing proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

As a traveler, chances are that most everyone with whom you'll come in contact, with the exception of those on public transport or gathering outdoors, will have been vaccinated. 

It's time for the U.S. to step up and offer Americans traveling domestically the same assurances. 

Like Canada, which will apply a vaccination requirement to air traffic controllers as well as airline pilots, cabin crew, mechanics, and most commercial passengers traveling by air, rail or ship, the U.S. Department of Transportation has full authority to make similar rules covering U.S. airports and airlines. 

It took a step in the right direction when it recently extended an order for mandatory mask-wearing in all federal government buildings, on public transport and inside airports and on planes.

Here's what needs to happen next:

*The DOT needs to issue an emergency mandate directing airlines to require passengers and crews to either offer proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. Those who take precautions and/or children too young to be vaccinated should not be forced to sit for hours unsure about the status of their seat mates or flight attendants. 

U.S. airline executives have argued that additional Covid restrictions for domestic flyers would be bad for business, resulting in fewer people willing to fly, and ultimately putting jobs at risk. This is the argument they used against banning smoking, a move that probably encouraged rather than discouraged more people to fly.

In Canada, Air Canada supports the new mandate, saying it is in line with science-based procedures for safe travel.

"It is a welcome step forward in the evolving measures to protect the health and safety of airline employees, customers and all Canadians," the airline said.

*The DOT needs to apply the same rules to anyone working inside an airport. This includes anyone working for private vendors and TSA officials who come in contact with thousands of travelers daily. There's more chance of catching Covid in a crowded airport than there is on a plane, so we need to minimize that risk as well. 

France's digital health pass

*The federal government should offer an internationally-recognized smart phone app that would allow Americans to download their vaccination and testing information in digital form (ie: The French health pass) that could be used anywhere proof of vaccination is required. 

The International Air Transport Association has urged countries around the world to adopt the European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate as the global standard for vaccine certification.

IATA said the EU's digital certificate is particularly effective because it’s available in paper and digital form, with a QR code that can be read in both, and features a gateway for the distribution of encrypted data that can extended to issuers from outside the EU.

More than  60 countries are looking to use the DCC specification for their own certification, in addition to the 27 EU members and states with reciprocal agreements, including Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine. There's no excuse for the U.S. not being on this list?

*The CDC needs to revamp its rating system for which countries pose the most risk to travelers. 

As of this week, the CDC rated 75 countries as Level 4- Very High Risk - with a recommendation that Americans avoid travel to those places.

Under this system, France is in the same risk bucket as French Guiana, Rwanda, Cuba and Myanmar, with no accounting for differences in vaccination rates, health care facilities or Covid precautions. If Texas and Florida were countries, they'd be rated very high-risk, but the CDC offers no advice about traveling to various parts of the U.S. 

* Airlines need to commit to continuing to allow passengers to change or cancel their tickets without penalties so that no one feels compelled to fly sick. 

In the meantime, the same general advice for traveling during Covid still applies while the Delta variant is spreading.

*Don't pay for anything that's non-refundable or can't be cancelled or changed without a penalty. That goes for tours, Airbnbs, hotels, cruises and airline tickets. 

*Stay flexible. Come up with alternatives for getting away if the trip you planned no longer makes sense. I'll likely swap a planned 10 days in Iceland for a few days in San Diego this fall, but I won't make final plans until closer to the date. 

*Don't rely on travel insurance to protect you should you decide not to travel. Canceling for fear of Covid is not covered under traditional comprehensive policies. Expensive cancel for Any Reason policies might cover cancellation, but some plans exclude pandemics and do not provide coverage for related issues. 

Check state requirements on masking

*Choose destinations where the vaccination rate is high and people wear masks indoors. I've wanted to visit Boise, Idaho, for instance, but I'll stay away for now since the statewide vaccination rate is just 50 percent, and the rise in hospitalizations among unvaccinated is so severe, the governor has called in the National Guard to deal with the surge.

Worth checking before you decide to visit anywhere in the U.S. is an AARP list on what various states require.

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