For families in Europe, US travel ban’s end is a new beginning

London Published: Sep 21, 2021, 11:22 PM(IST)

A representative image of air travel. Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

The news of the Biden administration's decision to lift an 18-month ban on travel from 33 countries, including Britain, member states of the European Union, Brazil, China, India, Iran and South Africa, seems to have raised the spirits of several families

For Katie Wait, the coronavirus pandemic has been more than just a year and a half of uncertainty. It has also meant months separated from her parents, brother and extended family in Florida.

Birthdays missed. Milestones celebrated apart. Time together lost.

“It’s just been mentally and emotionally the most challenging year, when you really want your family around,” Wait said, suddenly overcome by tears. “It’s been hard.”

So Monday, she was one of many across Europe and the world who rejoiced when the Biden administration announced that an 18-month ban on travel from 33 countries, including Britain, member states of the European Union, Brazil, China, India, Iran and South Africa, would be lifted.

The travel ban had not been a mere inconvenience for Wait and countless others: It crushed jobs and dashed opportunities and put an immovable wall between them and families or partners.

The United States began to implement travel bans at the start of the pandemic in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The bans extended to other nations as outbreaks continued. But they rankled Britain and nations in the European Union, particularly after those countries scrapped quarantine rules earlier this summer and welcomed fully vaccinated travelers from the United States.

When the United States did not immediately reciprocate, officials were annoyed. (As the delta variant spread over the summer, the European Union reversed course and recommended that member states once again restrict travel from the United States.)

As the months wore on, thousands who had been separated from family members and partners gathered online to share their experiences with the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism to call attention to their plight.

Wait, who had to cancel a trip to catch up with family in March 2020 and has not seen her parents since 2019, found the support there vital. She, her husband and her 9-year-old daughter are British, but Wait’s parents and brother have lived in St. Augustine, Florida, for the past 17 years and are U.S. citizens.

“You never expected that if they went to live in America, you wouldn’t be able to get to them,” she said. “You never think in a million years things like this will happen, that the border would be closed.”

Some people found ways — often expensive or arduous — around the ban, by traveling to a third country to circumvent the rule.

When his ex-wife died in Italy in June 2020, Francesco Sacca, 44, an Italian entrepreneur who lives in Florida, immediately flew back to the country. But he and his children, who are 15 and 17, were caught up in the travel ban.

They managed to fly to Costa Rica, spend two weeks there, and then enter the United States, but in the following months Sacca had to travel repeatedly to Italy for paperwork related to the death. Every time, in order to return to the United States, he had to spend two weeks in Colombia or the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, at a total expense of 80,000 euros, or $93,000.

But what worried him most was leaving his children alone in Florida.

“Every morning, I think of my 15-year-old who goes to the bus stop alone with her bike in the dark,” he said by telephone from Doha, the capital of Qatar. “All because of this travel ban.”

For most people, such an expensive workaround was not an option.

The search for news of when the ban would be lifted became a daily ritual for some.

“It’s been very hard to not think about it,” Wait said.

Now, with the uncertainty finally over, Wait has booked flights to see her parents in November.

For Lucrezia Tassi, 24, it was not family but professional plans that were put out of reach by the ban. Tassi is an Italian from Caravaggio, a town near the northern city of Bergamo, where some of the most deadly moments of the pandemic’s early days unfolded.

She paused plans to become an au pair for a family in Seattle for more than a year because of the ban. She said the uncertainty had also prevented her from moving on with her life.

“I couldn’t look for a small job or even book a concert ticket because I didn’t know if in one month I would be here,” she said.

Alejandro Gaebelt, a Spanish sales manager who lives in Madrid, said the Biden administration’s decision to change the travel rules was a positive shift but came too late.

Gaebelt’s sister lives in the United States, and he had plans to travel with his wife and two children to visit her this summer, but the ban made their plans impossible.

“We lost out on what was going to be a great family trip,” he said.

Lucia Vidal lost her job after being stuck in Italy because of the travel ban. Vidal, 33, an Italian who had worked as a nanny in Washington for seven years, was home renewing her visa when the Trump administration announced the ban and has been unable to return.

After she was stuck in Italy for more than a year, her employer fired her. She has been unable to return to the United States even to gather her things.

“It’s 10 years of life in America,” she said. “I have always paid taxes, my friends are there. Now that I lost my job I feel lost.”

Elide Vincenti, 30, was unable to begin a job in Miami as she was also back in Italy getting a visa when the ban was announced. She was blocked from visiting her boyfriend in New York for more than a year. Her friends in Miami moved her belongings into a storage unit, but as she did not collect them for months, they were eventually thrown away.

“I don’t have anything anymore,” she said.

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