Monday, November 29, 2021

US reopens for international travel, allows happy reunification

by Elliot Spagat and Carolyn Thompson

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Parents gave birth to babies stranded abroad. Long-separated couples kissed, and grandparents hugged grandchildren who had twice their age.

The US fully reopened for many vaccinated international travelers on Monday, allowing families and friends to reconnect for the first time since the coronavirus emerged and boosted the pandemic-hit travel industry. Sanctions locked down America for millions of people for 20 months.

Octavio Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter crossed a pedestrian crossing in San Diego in less than 15 minutes on their way to visit their mother-in-law in California.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Alvarez, 43, who lives in Ensenada, Mexico, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Before the pandemic, his family traveled to California twice a month. He said the emotional cost of border restrictions was “very high”.

US citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the US, but travel deterred tourists, failed business travelers and often kept families away. Travelers must have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.

“I think a lot of people are looking forward to this day,” said Eileen Bigelow, Vermont’s regional port director for Customs and Border Protection. “They see it as a light at the end of the tunnel for a return to normalcy.”

Hugs went on for a very long time at airports from coast to coast. At Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Mandi Shelat repeatedly hugged his girlfriend, Jolly Dave, after their arrival from India, ending their nine-month separation. She was on the first flight from the country to the United States.

“I can’t even express in my own words how happy I am,” Dave said.

Guy Camara, who lives in France, last saw her husband in New York in January 2020, not knowing that it would take them 21 months to catch each other again.

“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said 40-year-old Camara, as she rolled her luggage through Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where the humming crowd left faces like it was before the pandemic. Was. Masks.

On US borders with Mexico and Canada, where traveling back and forth was a way of life before the pandemic, the reopening has brought relief. Malls, restaurants and shops in US border cities were devastated by the lack of visitors from Mexico.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, accompanied by US and Mexican officials at a celebratory news conference at the San Ysidro crossing, said the economic damage was enormous and the cuts to family ties were “incomparable.”

Retail sales in San Ysidro fell nearly 75% from pre-COVID levels, leading to the closure of nearly 300 businesses.

Edith Aguirre of Tijuana worked in San Diego to shop. Bubbling with laughter, she accepted a gift bag from a duty-free store at the San Diego border crossing. She was a regular at SeaWorld in San Diego and last came to the US in February 2020 to celebrate her 50th birthday at Disneyland.

“It was very dry,” she said of the interruption in her cross-border life.

Sales are halved at David’s Western Wear shop in Nogales, Arizona, which makes shoes popular among Mexicans.

Owner David Moore hopes his specialty products will attract customers, but he said it won’t happen overnight. Many Mexicans are still trying to renew expired visas amid a backlog. Those who come may be disappointed to find the shelves empty due to supply chain problems.

“I really don’t think Mexican buyers are going to rush in because they’re used to buying a lot of products in Mexico now,” he said.

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Along the Canadian border, cross-border hockey rivalry was heightened by travel restrictions. The churches that had members on either side of the border suddenly became cut off from each other.

But on Monday, traffic at the border quickly returned.

At Vermont’s busiest international crossing with Canada, US border agents said they began to notice an increase in border crossings shortly after midnight. By noon, traffic returned to normal.

Passengers received a 2½-hour wait at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, one of the busiest crossings of the northern border, officials said, although traffic was flowing more freely within a few hours. The bridge typically handles about 2 million passenger vehicles annually from Fort Erie, Ontario, many of them bound for the area’s shopping malls, ski slopes, and sporting events. Volumes fell by more than 90% during the pandemic.

Rivers Robinson’s American partner was not in Canada for the birth of their child 17 months earlier. She was thrilled to hear about the US reopening and planned to take the baby to the US for Thanksgiving.

“It’s crazy to think he has another side of the family that he hasn’t met yet,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Airlines are preparing for a surge in activity – particularly from Europe – as the pandemic and the resulting restrictions have led to a decline in international travel.

According to the US Travel Association, the 28 European countries that were banned accounted for 37% of foreign visitors in 2019. As soon as the reopening takes effect, carriers are increasing flights between the United Kingdom and the US by 21% this month compared to last month, according to data from travel and analytics firm Sirium.

In a sign of the immense importance of trans-Atlantic travel for airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic celebrated the reopening by synchronizing the departures of their morning flights to New York on parallel runways at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Maria Giribet, 74, who lives on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, was on her way to San Francisco, where she planned to “suffocate” her twin grandchildren after losing half their lives. Gabriel and David are now three and a half years old.

The US will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any shot approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the US. The point is, 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 WHO-approved shots will not be able to travel to the US.

Testing and quarantine requirements remained a hindrance to others. A mobile test truck was parked near the Peace Bridge in New York, promising results in 30 minutes for $225 and $160 the next day.

Marcella Picon, 39, of the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, looks forward to the day her fiancé and father of their 2- and 3-year-olds can arrive from Stony Creek, Ontario. But if they travel, their 15-year-old son will have to drop off school on his return.

“He is the father of two American children,” she said. “They should have had the right to come to this country for the entire 19 months.”

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Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York. Associated Press writers John Leicester in Paris, Travis Lawler in Nashville, Tennessee, Wilson Ring in Highgate Springs, Vermont, Anita Snow in Phoenix, Rob Gillies in Toronto and Ted Schaffrey in Newark, New Jersey contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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