As U.S. Reopens to International Travelers, Families Begin to Reunite After Months of Separation
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Parents held children born while they were stuck abroad. The grandparents hugged grandchildren twice their age who were born to long-separated parents.
On Monday, the U.S. opened its doors to all vaccinated travelers from around the world. This allowed families and friends to reconnect for the first-ever coronavirus outbreak and provided a boost for the struggling travel industry. For 20 months, the U.S. was closed to millions of Americans due to these restrictions.
Octavio and his 14 year-old daughter, Octavio Alvarez, zipped across a San Diego pedestrian cross in 15 minutes to get to California.
“It’s a big feeling,” said Alvarez, 43, who lives in Ensenada, Mexico, a two-hour drive from San Diego. His family used to visit California two times a month before the pandemic. The emotional cost of the border restrictions were “very high,” he added.
Americans and permanent residents are allowed to travel into the U.S. but there were restrictions on tourists. The proof must be of vaccinations and the negative results for COVID-19.
“I think a lot of people have been waiting for this day,” said Eileen Bigelow, area port director for Vermont for Customs and Border Protection. “They look at it as a light at the end of the tunnel for some return of normalcy.”
From coast to coast, there were many long hugs. Following their separation of nine months, Nirmit shelat repeatedly hugged Jolly David, his girlfriend at Newark International Airport. It was her first flight from India to the United States.
“I can’t even explain in my words how happy I am,” Dave said.
Gaye Camara is a French national who last saw her husband in New York on January 2020. She didn’t know that it would take 21 months for them to be able to hold hands again.
“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said Camara, 40, as she wheeled her luggage through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, where the humming crowds resembled those before the pandemic, except for the face masks.
There was relief at the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the pandemic the movement back and forth between the two countries was common. The lack of Mexican visitors to the U.S. borders towns devastated malls, shops and restaurants.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, flanked by U.S. and Mexican officials at a celebratory news conference at the San Ysidro crossing, said the economic losses were hefty and the cutting of family ties “immeasurable.”
San Ysidro’s retail sales dropped by 75% from levels pre-COVID, causing nearly 300 businesses closing.
Edith Aguirre, Tijuana, took time off from work to shop in San Diego. She laughed so hard that she took a bag of gift bags from the duty-free shop at the San Diego border crossing. SeaWorld was her regular haunt in San Diego. She last visited the U.S. in February 2020 to celebrate her 50th Birthday at Disneyland.
“It was very draining,” she said of the interruption to her cross-border life.
Sales dropped in half at David’s Western Wear shop in Nogales, Arizona, which manufactures boots popular among Mexicans.
Owner David Moore hopes his specialty products lure back customers, but he said it won’t happen overnight. Many Mexicans have a long wait to renew their expired visas. Many people who come to Mexico may find their shelves empty due to supply chain problems.
“I really don’t think Mexican shoppers are going to come across in hordes because they have now gotten used to buying a lot of products they need in Mexico,” he said.
David Jerome, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce on Mexico’s border in Texas, said: “It won’t come back as quickly as it was shut off.”
Still, “we feel like we’re getting our neighbors back and we’re glad to get people going back to work,” Jerome said.
Along Canada’s boundary, cross-border hockey rivalries were upended by the travel restrictions. The travel restrictions suddenly cut all contact between churches that have members from both sides.
However, the border traffic returned to normal on Monday.
At Vermont’s busiest international crossing with Canada, U.S. border agents said they began to notice the uptick in border crossing shortly after midnight. Traffic seemed steady until mid-morning.
Travelers at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, one of the northern border’s busiest crossings, found a 2½-hour wait at 2 a.m., officials said, though within a few hours traffic was flowing more freely. The bridge typically handles about 2 million passenger vehicles from Fort Erie, Ontario, yearly, many of them bound for the region’s shopping malls, ski slopes and sporting events. During the pandemic, volume dropped more than 90%.
River Robinson’s American partner wasn’t able to be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago. It was exciting to learn about the U.S.’s reopening. She planned to travel with the child to the U.S. to celebrate Thanksgiving.
It’s “crazy to think he has a whole other side of the family he hasn’t even met yet,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Airlines are preparing for a surge in activity — especially from Europe — after the pandemic and resulting restrictions caused international travel to plunge.
According to U.S. Travel Association data, the 37% who visited overseas from 28 European countries were banned in 2019. The reopening of flights is increasing by 21% between the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada, according to Cirium, a travel analytics and data firm.
In a sign of the huge importance of trans-Atlantic travel for airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic celebrated the reopening by synchronizing the departures of their early morning flights to New York on parallel runways at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Maria Giribet, 74, who lives on the Mediterranean isle of Majorca was headed to San Francisco where she planned to “suffocate” her twin grandchildren with hugs after missing half their lives. Gabriel and David are now 3½.
The U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the shots approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That’s a relief for many in Canada, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is widely used.
But millions of people around the world who were vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSino or other shots not approved by the WHO will not be able to travel to the U.S.
Others faced difficulties with testing and quarantine. The Peace Bridge was near New York City. A mobile testing van was located nearby, promising quick results and $160 next-day results.
Marcela Picone, 39, of the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, has been waiting for the day her fiancé and father of her 2- and 3-year-old children can visit from Stoney Creek, Ontario. His 15-year old son, however, would need to be absent from school in order to receive quarantine after their return.
“He’s a dad to two American kids,” she said. “He should have had the right to come into this country the entire 19 months.”
Thompson was based in Buffalo, New York. The report was also contributed by John Leicester (Paris), Travis Loller (Nashville, Tennessee), Wilson Ring in Highgate Springs Springs, Vermont), Anita Snow (Phoenix), Rob Gillies and Ted Shaffrey (Newark, New Jersey).