Fully vaccinated travelers from 33 countries – including the UK and much of Europe – can now enter the US without going into quarantine, provided they have proof of vaccination and a negative viral test.
Families and friends separated since the start of the pandemic flocked to airports in major European cities Monday morning, excited to see loved ones for the first time since former President Donald Trump imposed strict travel restrictions at the start of the pandemic in an effort to the the virus.
But behind these cheerful scenes is a darker background.
Large swathes of Europe are battling to curb the rise of the Delta variant amid the easing of restrictions and the rollout of stuttering vaccines in some countries, with the WHO warning that half a million Europeans could die from Covid- 19 in a potentially devastating winter.
Germany registered its highest seven-day incidence rate since the start of the pandemic on Monday. The same day, neighboring Austria banned unvaccinated people from restaurants and hotels amid a spate of cases. Iceland has also reintroduced masks and social distancing rules after a surge. And cases are hovering at record levels in Russia, Ukraine and Greece.
From Paris to the USA, with love
Nevertheless, a steady stream of masked travelers arrived at Paris’ bustling Charles de Gaulle Airport on Monday morning, excited to finally see loved ones in the US.
The airport departure board was filled almost back-to-back with flights to US destinations. Some travelers wondered if this was an opportunity to see loved ones before another wave of Covid-19 in Europe cut them off from the world again.
One traveler, Maxime Barei, told CNN he was on his way to visit his two children in Los Angeles, where they are studying. It is the first time in two years that he can go to the US. “We can call it freedom,” Barei said, adding: “I hope it stays that way.” Amid uncertainty about a new wave in Europe, he said: “I don’t know if the borders will be closed again another time.”
Another woman, Maria Giribet Caldentey, was also on her way to California to see her twin grandchildren, having postponed the trip once before due to border closures. “I’m leaving on the first day they’ll allow me to leave…I’ve got butterflies,” she said. It’s the first time Caldentey has traveled alone, after her husband died last year, and she admitted she was a little nervous on the trip. But most of all, she was relieved that she was finally going on a journey she had “dreamed of since July.”
Many European airlines — including Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Swiss Air and British Airways — reported full or near-full flights on the first day the US reopened to vaccinated international travelers.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic celebrated the easing of restrictions with a double takeoff of their first flights from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK Airport. Air France said it would increase its capacity after the US announcement led to a significant increase in bookings, particularly on routes to New York, Miami and Los Angeles during the Christmas holidays.
“After an unprecedented 18-month shutdown, today we celebrate the US reopening for the nearly 76% of the EU adult population who have since been vaccinated against Covid-19. European airlines look forward to reuniting families and friends who have already years apart. far too long,” Europe’s largest aviation association, Airlines 4 Europe, said in a statement:
‘Good for the economy, good for people’
Meanwhile, experts in some parts of Europe have expressed concern that a further rise in infections, coupled with seasonal winter colds, could put health workers at Christmas and into the new year under unmanageable pressure.
On Monday, the daily Covid-19 infection rate in Germany rose to 201.1 cases per 100,000 people, the highest since the start of the pandemic, according to the Robert Koch Institute of Infectious Diseases (RKI). In some eastern states, such as Saxony and Thuringia, the number of incidents was more than double the number of more than 400.
There was little mention, however, of increasing cases of German politicians welcoming the reopening of US travel Monday, with Economy and Technology Minister Peter Altmaier welcoming the move in a statement, saying it was “good for our trans-nationals.” Atlantic relations, good for the economy and good for the people.”
Earlier this month, the world passed the grim milestone of 5 million Covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic — a sign UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called “a painful new threshold”.
Sheena McKenzie wrote in London. Melissa Bell and Joseph Ataman contributed from Paris. Chris Liakos, Anna Cooban, Rob Picheta, Stephanie Halasz, Ivana Kottasova and Fred Pleitgen contributed to this report