The U.S. government has been in discussion with airlines this week about imposing a 72-hour testing requirement on passengers traveling to the United States, similar to the requirement put in place for travel to the U.S. from the U.K. this week.
With the virus spreading rapidly in the community already, travel restrictions have only modest public health benefit.
- Countries like Australia and New Zealand, which are containing the virus, need to continue to work hard to keep it out.
- Adding incremental cases in the U.S., which is already seeing 200,000 or more positive tests a day, doesn’t materially change the course of the pandemic here.
- However one fewer case may be one fewer person needing an ICU bed, in places where beds have become scarce.
Here, though, I’m interested in the mechanics of what this will mean for Americans returning home, since like the U.K. travel requirement it’s expected that this would apply to U.S. citizens and not just to foreign visitors. By the way this isn’t actually an argument for or against per se in this post, just tracing some of the challenges associated with the policy.
You Can’t Just Get Tested Wherever You Are
Testing in 90% of countries isn’t as prevalent as in the U.S. The U.S. has conducted over 250 million tests for Covid-19, or 3 tests for every 4 Americans. Denmark and the U.A.E. have conducted around 2 tests per person. But the U.S. has conducted more tests per capita than Hong Kong,, Spain, Italy, France, Norway, Australia, Sweden, Germany or Canada. Testing is scarce in Egypt, Mexico, and virtually non-existent in Tanzania.
Travelers Abroad May Not Be Able To Get Tested Where They Are
People are abroad now. Their trips are likely to extend past when any new requirement is put in place. For instance travelers might be given 3 days notice of the new requirement while they’re traveling home in a week. They may not even learn about the requirement before showing up at the airport.
If you’re on an atoll in the Maldives, can you even get tested? Some hotels will organize this. But uncertainty will cause many people to have to cancel their trips even though the country allows U.S. visitors with their own testing requirement.
A 72 Hour Requirement Is Really A 48 Hour Requirement
A 72 hour testing requirement from a place like the Maldives or Tanzania, or other remote destinations, may in practice be a 48 hour requirement since it can take a day from leaving a hotel or resort to get to your U.S. bound flight.
Add An Enroute To Get Tested, But Where?
Someone who can’t get tested prior to leaving their current destination may have to fly somewhere else just to get tested. But much of the world is closed to Americans, and places that are open often themselves require a negative test for entry.
While there are a handful of flights between the U.S. and Europe with predeparture testing that form a travel bubble, Americans can’t enter Europe from elsewhere. An American returning from Africa, for instance, can’t land in Frankfurt or Amsterdam and enter for a couple of days to get a test and wait for results.
Instead you might need to travel to the U.K. and self-isolate for 10 days prior to getting tested, wait for results, and return home.
Substantially Burden The Right Of Citizens To Return To The U.S.
An American citizen presenting themselves at the border is entitled to enter the country. They can be questioned, searched, and required to quarantine as a public health measure. But as a general matter citizens cannot be denied entry into the country.
Here the government places a requirement on airlines to prevent citizens from presenting themselves at the border and substantially burden the right to travel.