LONDON — Deborah Tudhope was growing increasingly nervous. She is an American lawyer living in London and was hoping to be able to travel to the United States in two weeks to see her 96-year-old mother, who lives in a care home in Maine, but is worried she will not be able to travel due travel restrictions announced Thursday by the White House before the appearance of the omicron variant.
Tudhope, 72, had to reschedule her coronavirus test for the day before her flight, which had already been delayed by the airline for a day. With rules that seem to change from hour to hour, he said he faced multiple hurdles: leaving the UK, entering the US and visiting his mother in care.
“I don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” said Tudhope, who said she was discouraged, even surprised, by the confusion. “But I made sure the flights could be rescheduled.”
These kinds of private dramas are unfolding around the world, as thousands of people — Americans living abroad and foreigners wishing to visit the United States — grapple with the new complexities of vacation travel in the age of COVID-19. .
The spread of the omicron variant last week further heightened the uncertainty of an already tense trance. On Thursday, the Joe Biden administration shortened the time allowed for international travelers to the United States to take a COVID-19 test one day before their trip, regardless of their vaccination status.
It has left would-be travelers nervously calculating whether they will receive test results in time to catch their flights or worry that their home countries will impose stricter travel bans while they are away.
The United States has stopped imposing a mandatory seven-day quarantine on arrivals, which many travelers say would have scuttled their plans. Nor has it changed its standard for an acceptable COVID-19 test – the antigen test – to a PCR, the results of which can take much longer.
However, the new one-day window for testing, announced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, further heightened pre-flight stress.
Paula Tolton, 23, an American student in Taipei, Taiwan, who is due to return home next month to visit family in Jacksonville, Florida, said she was worried the new rules could cause her to miss her flight. Even the previous testing requirement for the United States, a negative test result within three days of arriving, caused him “maximum anxiety”, he said.
“I’ve suffered from this stress before, when a PCR test result didn’t come in by the date I was supposed to fly in April,” he said. “It was driving me crazy.”
Public health experts said there was a compelling reason to shorten the time frame for test results: it would pick up more infections among travellers. Since antigen test results are usually available within hours, it should be possible to take a test and get your results within the specified time.
“A negative test is a good idea, especially since fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh; however, he acknowledged that the motley array of travel restrictions and the changing nature of regulations were taking their toll on people.
“Uncertainty is killing the travel industry and people’s confidence in booking and travel,” Sridhar explained. “They need a standard approach across countries and, over time, stability.”
Travel agents expressed relief that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not recommend a seven-day quarantine. “We are not going to New York to isolate ourselves in a 9 square meter hotel room,” said Jean-Pierre Mas, president of Entreprises du Voyage, a union representing the main French travel agencies and tour operators. .
After more than a year of pandemic-related disruption, Mas said many travelers have already gotten used to the screening requirements and are unlikely to be put off by the new rules. But he said the lack of certainty, and a sense that governments were abruptly changing the rules in reaction to the perceived threat of the new variant, was keeping people at home. After recovering through the summer and early fall, he said tourism activity had fallen in recent weeks by around 25%, compared to the same period in 2019.
“We’ve barely sold out trips to the United States in the last four or five days,” Mas said, despite the country being a popular destination for French tourists, who flock to New York for Christmas.
What makes the latest uproar particularly poignant for many is that just weeks ago the United States eased travel restrictions for international travelers who had a full vaccination schedule, sparking emotional rallies .
At the same time, travel between Europe and the United States has resumed after a long pause during the early stages of the pandemic. Flights between the United States and Italy were sold out until a few days ago, and bookings are about the same as in 2019, according to a spokesperson for Fiavet, the agent association Italian travels.
British Airways, Air France and United Airlines added more transatlantic flights, while ITA Airways, an Italian carrier, added a daily service between Rome and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Italian authorities say the country is well prepared to deal with increased testing of passengers bound for the United States. In the weeks since the government began requiring frequent, negative tests for all unvaccinated Italian workers, pharmacies processed up to a million rapid tests a day.
“The prospect of faster testing for travelers to the United States is not a problem for pharmacies here,” said Marco Cossolo, president of Italy’s largest association of private pharmacies, Federfarma.
South Korea has the capacity to administer a daily average of 68,000 PCR tests in November, according to Seung-ho Choi, deputy director of risk communications at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Results are almost always available within 24 hours, he said, although travelers on early morning flights when clinics are closed may need to research hospitals that perform the tests.
The UK is one of several countries that have recently required testing for travelers arriving in their country within a day or two of arrival. Randox Laboratories, a UK company that provides COVID-19 testing for travel, said on Thursday that since announcing the changes for travelers entering the UK last weekend, it had increased PCR testing capacity to its pandemic peak of 180,000 tests per day.
It will also help process tests for those traveling to the United States, the company said.
For Europeans with ties to the United States, the new rules are just the latest unexpected wildcard in an already changing life.
“What a nightmare, stop it!” said Alice Volpi, 28, upon learning of the imminent arrival of new Americans.
Volpi, an Italian who lived in New York at the start of the pandemic, recalled that she had been unable to return home to Italy for several months due to restrictions in her country. When she finally made it, US travel restrictions prevented her from seeing her boyfriend in New York again.
“The most frustrating thing is that you can never make plans more than a week in advance because everything can change from one day to the next,” said Voltio, who said she had insisted on her intention to visit her boyfriend for Christmas. “It doesn’t let me be calm.”
For some Americans living abroad who fear that borders will close if the omicron variant proves to be a deadly threat, advancing their travel deadlines is the solution. The testing requirements are stressful, they said, but not as stressful as the possibility that the Biden administration will end up suspending travel routes entirely.
“That’s what worries me the most: not being able to see my family,” said Sarah Little, 25, who moved from New York to London in September to study. She had originally planned to fly home around Christmas, but is now trying to book a flight early next week.
“It would be devastating not to be able to go home,” Little said.
Gaia Pianigiani Yes Emma Bubola collaborated with this report from Rome; SaskiaSolomon and isabelle kuwait from London; aurelian breed from Paris; John Youn from Seoul, South Korea; Yes Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.
Mark Landler is the London bureau chief. In 27 years at the Times, he was bureau chief in Hong Kong, Frankfurt and diplomatic correspondent, at the White House and in European economics. He was also a business journalist in New York. @MarkLandler