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Should the U.S. Drop Pre-Departure Covid Testing?

Back in May, representatives from the airline and tourism industries wrote a letter to the White House calling for a shakeup in Covid-19 restrictions on travelers entering the country. Their demands were simple: the “urgent repeal” of all pre-departure testing for passengers entering the United States.

260 representatives signed the letter, after which some business leaders sat down with officials from the Biden administration to discuss an end to pre-travel testing. However, as things stand, the White House has given no indication of when these requirements will end.

Under the present rules, all passengers flying into the U.S. have to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test before departure. This is regardless of vaccination status or citizenship, meaning a fully-vaccinated American citizen could still be denied entry to the U.S. if he failed to access a Covid test before his flight.

Many countries, including the UK and Italy have already dropped pre-departure Covid testing.

The policy is notably out of step with many other countries, which have long-since done away with pre-departure testing for visitors and citizens alike. In the U.K., Italy and Greece visitors do not have to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test regardless of their vaccination status. What’s more, none of these countries have experience any significant spike in case numbers since dropping their testing requirements.

Not only is the policy deemed out of date by many Western countries, but there is evidence that it is doing real damage to the still-recovering American economy. Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the Global Business Travel Association, told The Hill news site that “The testing requirement is impacting people’s willingness to travel and puts the U.S. at risk of falling behind other countries.”

Traveler reticence is having a hugely detrimental impact on the country’s tourism sector, which has already been pummelled by two years of restrictions and reduced international travel. This is a view shared by the mayors of some 40 cities, including San Francisco and Miami, who have written to White House Covid-19 coordinator Dr Ashish Jha urging him to scrap the testing requirements so that cities can once again benefit from international visitors.

Lifting testing requirements would make a huge impact in boosting tourism figures, with a May poll finding that 46% of international respondents would be more likely to travel to the U.S. if the remaining travel restrictions are dropped.

While domestic travel is almost back to normal, international visitors are still down 14%.

From the airline industry, the view is similarly clear: drop restrictions as soon as possible. In a recent interview, Nick Calio, CEO of the industry’s trade association Airlines for America, described pre-departure testing as having a “chilling effect on the already fragile economy here in the U.S.” The argument seems fairly conclusive as well, with international travel still down 14% on 2019 levels, whereas domestic passenger numbers are almost back to their pre-pandemic peak.

With so few Western countries still insisting on pre-departure testing, and industry leaders and local officials alike crying out for a relaxation in the rules, it seems only a matter of time until the White House scales back its objections. Already legal challenges are being mounted to combat the requirements in a similar way to April’s ruling by a Florida federal judge to overturn the mask mandate for public transport. Until then, businesses and travelers alike will just have to grit their teeth and swab their throats.

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