Anticipation, tears, reunions, relief and long lines as US reopens it's borders after 20 months

Eager travellers and their relatives rejoiced, wept and breathed sighs of relief Monday as the United States reopened to vaccinated visitors, ending 20 months of COVID-19 restrictions that separated families, hobbled tourism and strained diplomatic ties.

Take a look at the sheer happiness these families felt when reunited:

Anticipated reunions

From Rainbow Bridge at the US-Canada border to Mexico's Tijuana crossing at San Ysidro, California, cars, motor homes and masked pedestrians clogged entry points from before dawn for highly anticipated reunions. 

At airports and other US ports of entry, reunited relatives hugged as many met for the first time since the coronavirus swept the globe, leaving more than five million people dead and devastating economies.

In Europe, passengers lined up excitedly at airports to board planes bound for American cities, while those entering the country by land -- some lugging suitcases or pushing bag-filled strollers under the watchful eyes of border patrol agents -- faced hours-long waits.


Twenty months of separation

Smiling passengers from the first European flight to land under the new rules at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport entered the terminal to cheers and applause.

The ban, imposed by then-president Donald Trump in early 2020 and upheld by his successor Joe Biden, had become emblematic of the upheavals caused by the pandemic.

Trump initially closed US borders to travellers from China in February, 2020.

A month later, he extended the ban to large swathes of the world, including the European Union, Britain, India and Brazil, and subsequently to overland visitors from Mexico and Canada. 


Surging demand

At London's Heathrow Airport, two planes from rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic heading to New York took off at the same time from parallel runways to mark the occasion.

To cope with surging demand, airlines have increased the number of transatlantic flights and plan to use larger planes.

Dulles airport outside the US capital was also filled with happy reunited families Monday as well as professionals getting back on the road again. 

Paris-based Paul works for a US company but had been working remotely for more than a year. 

The border reopening "allows for reconnecting with people in a meeting room, in person... reconnecting with teams we're used to working with via videoconference," he said after landing in Washington.


Land borders also open

US land borders also reopened to non-essential travel on Monday.

Canadian travellers, particularly retirees headed to US sun spots, flocked to the US land border to drive across for the first time in 20 months, although testing requirements could dampen short-stay travel.

Hundreds of migrants have arrived at Mexican border cities such as Tijuana in recent days, hoping the reset will make it easier to cross and seek US asylum, despite warnings from advocates that the re-opening is for people who have papers.


'It was necessary'

Along the US-Mexico border, many cities faced economic struggles due to anti-COVID-19 trade restrictions.

But there was little criticism of the border closures among those waiting to enter the United States Monday.

"Well, because of the disease, it was necessary," said Herminia Urieta, who travelled three days from Guerrero, in southern Mexico, to visit a sister she has not seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

Reflecting widespread anticipation of the reopening, currency exchange centres in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez were hit by a shortage of dollars.

"We have butterflies," said Daniel Francoeur, who along with his wife waited almost seven hours to cross the Thousand Islands Bridge into New York state after leaving their Ottawa area home at 1:30 am.

"It's been two years since we went to Florida and we didn't want to wait another day," they said.


Surreal experience

Aysha Mathew struggled to hold back tears after her mother and sister arrived at New York's JFK airport on Monday, fresh off the first British Airways flight from London's Heathrow.

Mathew was holding her toddler, Adam, and pushing a stroller with her infant, Aaron, whom her mother and sister were meeting for the first time.

"It's so surreal to finally be here and see them meet in person," Mathew said. "I'm really, really happy."

US allies had heavily lobbied the Biden administration to lift the rules.


'Thank God we are here'

A second phase, beginning early January, will require all visitors be fully vaccinated to enter by land.

US health authorities have said all vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization would be accepted for entry by air.

Despite concerns over increases in COVID-19 cases in some countries, including a recent upswing in Europe that the WHO warned could mean "another half a million COVID-19 deaths" by February, many only expressed relief at America's reopening.

For 63-year-old Mexican grandmother Isabel Gonzalez, her 20-month wait to hug her San Diego-based children ended Monday when she walked from Tijuana into California.

"Thank God we are here," she said.


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