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U.S. travel ban ends, easing personal frustrations and diplomatic tension

Brussels, Belgium

Travelers at Heathrow Airport near London, on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Thousands of excited passengers flocked into Heathrow Airport on Monday for the first flights to the United States out of London since the Biden Administration lifted a travel ban on international visitors. (Alex Ingram/The New York Times)

New York Times reporting by Elian Peltier

BRUSSELS — For months, like many Europeans, Laurence Tesson in France, waited in frustration as the United States kept its COVID-related travel ban in force, even after the European Union lifted its own prohibition on Americans.

She has been aching for three years to see her son who lives in California. As she prepared to board one of the first flights to Los Angeles on Monday when the ban lifted for vaccinated Europeans and others, that frustration, and sadness, was giving way to elation, tinged with worry that something could still go wrong. “Only when I set a foot at the Los Angeles airport will I be relieved,” Tesson, 54, said over the weekend.

The lifting of the travel ban on Nov. 8 will allow couples and families to reunite after 18 months of missed reunions, births, weddings and funerals. It also ends a diplomatic tussle between the United States and the European Union, where thousands had turned to social media to press governments to end the ban, using the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism.

In June, the EU asked member countries to reopen their borders to U.S. travelers, and its leaders had expected that the Biden administration would soon reciprocate. The EU was closing in on U.S. vaccination rates — it overtook them in July — and members were containing coronavirus infections as U.S. cases were rising.

“We must solve this problem as soon as possible,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in unusually blunt remarks in August. “This cannot drag on for weeks.”

It dragged on for months.

Eirini Linardaki, a French-Greek visual artist who was flying to New York on Monday to be reunited with her partner, said she felt a sense of injustice over the summer as she saw planes from the United States landing in Paris.

“The idea that we couldn’t visit our loved one in the country they are, we as Europeans were not familiar with that,” she said about pre-pandemic travel.

Linardaki, 45, is still not taking anything for granted: “I keep wondering, is this real?”

Even with the borders open again, many Europeans struggled to understand why the ban remained in place for so long, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in immigration and trade.

“This has separated lots of couples and families, and went on much longer than most people thought it would,” he said, “so there has been enormous frustration.”

As travelers prepared to fly to the United States this week, many reported mixed emotions.

“More stressed than excited,” said Line Laumann, a 23-year-old from Denmark who flew to Denver on Monday to be reunited with her boyfriend. “We were let down so many times.”

The wait at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, where she had a layover, was painless, Laumann said — “as long as you have all the right paperwork.”

That was not the case in Amsterdam, according to Jessica Borgers, who was also flying to Denver and had to wait 2 ½ hours to check in Monday morning.

“Madness,” she said in a text, with a picture showing hundreds of passengers lining up.

U.S.-bound travelers are welcomed at Heathrow Airport, near London on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Alex Ingram/The New York Times)

Some planned short trips.

In northeast England, Jonny Grant was getting ready to spend a week in Orlando, Florida, so his 4-year-old could discover Walt Disney World.

Others, like Nick Vermeyen, a 32-year-old living in Belgium and flying to Los Angeles on Saturday to be with his boyfriend, plan to be gone for as long as travel rules allow them — “89 days,” Vermeyen said.

“We haven’t seen each other in two years,” he said, “so we thought: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve. Why not?”

Holiday season as Europe faces near-record levels of coronavirus infections

The Biden administration is lifting the ban weeks before the holiday season, and Europeans can now enter the United States with proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test no more than 72 hours old.

But the opening comes just as Europe faces a near-record level of coronavirus infections. And although 65% of EU residents have been vaccinated, there are wide discrepancies within the bloc, with most Eastern European countries lagging.

That has left many Europeans worried that travel restrictions could be reimposed soon, although Alden said he doubted the Biden administration would reverse course in the weeks to come, citing pressure from airlines and foreign partners.

Many said they had jumped on the opportunity to fly as soon as they could, no matter the cost.

“Hopefully it won’t be 1.5 years again,” said Luise Greve, 23, a student from Germany who was scheduled to fly Monday to Kansas City to visit her boyfriend.

Claudio Tomassi, 46, an Italian manager living in Pennsylvania, came back to his hometown near Rome in September because his mother’s health was deteriorating. Her health improved soon after his return, Tomassi said, but he was stuck in Italy, far from his wife and two children, because he is not a U.S. citizen.

When the Biden administration announced in September that the travel ban would be lifted, demand spiked in Italy for U.S.-bound plane tickets, Tomassi said, with one-way flights skyrocketing to about 1,400 euros, or about $1,620, much more than their usual price. But he bought one for Tuesday anyway, worried that with the virus again spreading throughout Europe, the rules might change once more.

“I got scared,” Tomassi said. “They could decide to not allow flights, and what do I do?”

In the end, the decision was clear.

“My family is there and I am stuck here,” Tomassi said. “I want to go home.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Emma Bubola contributed reporting in Rome, Raphael Minder in Madrid, and Christopher Schuetze in Berlin.

c.2021 The New York Times Company