The CDC says fully vaccinated Americans can travel safely; many COVID-19 protocols are in flux

Latest updates

• It is safe for fully vaccinated people to travel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says that individuals who are fully vaccinated (two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) can safely resume travel within the U.S. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to get a COVID-19 test or to quarantine before or after domestic travel.

• Masks still need to be worn on public transportation. While the CDC has announced loosened mask-wearing guidelines for those who’ve been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, it still requires all travelers to wear them on airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations.

• The CDC’s guidance for unvaccinated travelers remains unchanged: They should delay travel until they are fully vaccinated. If they do travel within the U.S., they should get tested for COVID-19 one to three days before departure and again three to five days after returning. They should stay home and self-quarantine for seven days after travel or 10 days if they don’t get tested at the conclusion of travel.

• Many in the travel industry still appear uncertain about how to implement the new CDC guidance. Some hotels and restaurants, for instance, are wrestling with whether and how they can safely allow fully vaccinated people to go maskless indoors, as they also consider the needs and desires of their employees and customers. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has recommended that member hotels (almost half of U.S. hotels) loosen indoor mask requirements for vaccinated guests. Chip Rogers, AHLA’s CEO and president, said in a statement: “At this time, we are not asking hotels to require proof of vaccination status, but we do ask that all guests and workers, vaccinated or not, respect and honor these revised guidelines. Unvaccinated guests should wear face-coverings at all times and practice physical distancing.”  

•  Europe plans to allow Americans who are fully vaccinated to visit this summer under certain conditions, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told The New York Times. She did not say what date the countries will reopen, noting that it would depend “on the epidemiological situation, but the situation is improving in the United States, as it is, hopefully, also improving in the European Union.” She cited the United States’ “huge progress” toward achieving herd immunity, or immunizing 70 percent of the population to significantly stop the virus’s spread.

• Most international travel remains difficult and inadvisable, according to U.S. officials. While some countries are beginning to open up to vaccinated American visitors, including Greece and Iceland, the State Department has placed most countries on its travel advisory map at level 4, which means “do not travel,” due to a high risk of COVID-19. That includes Mexico, Greece and Ireland. Many others, such as Barbados and Iceland, are listed at level 3, or “reconsider travel.” The CDC says to delay international travel until you are fully vaccinated and to consult the CDC’s recommendations by country (which are sometimes different than the State Department’s), as well as check the current COVID-19 situation in your destination.

• Testing is required for return to the U.S. While fully vaccinated individuals don’t need to be tested for COVID-19 before departing for international travel, they do still need to be tested before returning to the U.S. (as do international visitors; in order to board a flight to the U.S. they need to provide documentation of a negative viral test taken within three days of their departure or provide proof that they have recovered from COVID-19). Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine when they return to the U.S. from international travel, but they should get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the U.S., and watch for symptoms. Everyone should continue to wear masks in public and follow other infection prevention measures, such as frequent handwashing and social distancing. The CDC recommends that unvaccinated people delay international travel until they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

•  Cruising could return to U.S. waters in a matter of weeks, and with relaxed rules for fully vaccinated passengers. The CDC has clarified the latest phase of its Conditional Sail Order for big ships with 250 or more passengers and said it was committed to cruising’s resumption in American waters by midsummer. Before this clarification, the order had put cruising on hold until November. One roadblock comes from Florida: On May 3, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a ban on so-called vaccination passports, which would prevent cruise lines from requiring passengers to be vaccinated. Cruise lines, eager to sail again, are hoping for an allowance to do so.  

• Some cruise lines have announced vaccine requirements. They include the river cruise line American Queen Steamboat Co. and its sister line, Victory Cruise Lines, which have announced that all guests and crew members will need to have been vaccinated for COVID-19, effective July 1. Norwegian Cruise Line has said it hopes to begin sailing July 4 (depending on CDC allowances and negotiations with Florida, among other things), with vaccine requirements for passengers and crew. The luxury Silversea Cruises line, owned by Royal Caribbean, is among other lines requiring that passengers be vaccinated.

• Canada has extended its cruise ship ban for another year, until February 2022, prohibiting all cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers from entering Canadian waters. This prevents some big cruise lines from restarting their normal routes between ports on the U.S. mainland and those in Alaska, because many are registered in other countries and U.S. maritime law requires foreign-flagged ships to stop at a foreign port when traveling between two U.S. ports. Alaskan legislators are calling the ban “unacceptable”; a bill that would allow Alaskan cruises to bypass the restrictions is being considered by Congress. (Smaller U.S.-based lines, such as American Cruise Lines, are able to continue with plans for Alaskan cruises this summer.)

• Canada’s land borders with the U.S. to remain closed. The borders between the U.S. and Canada will remain closed to leisure travelers until at least May 21 because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (Canadian officials are likely to announce another month’s extension of the closure before Friday.)

• Warning against travel to Mexico. The CDC continues to advise against travel to Mexico due to very high levels of COVID-19 in the country. (Land borders are closed, but Americans can still fly there.) The CDC says, “If you must travel to Mexico, get fully vaccinated before travel. All travelers should wear a mask, stay 6 feet from others, avoid crowds and wash their hands.” Air travel between the U.S. and Mexico is allowed, but land crossings are still permitted only for essential purposes.

• States are loosening quarantine rules for visitors. Many U.S. states have requested or mandated quarantines for travelers or residents returning from other states, but rules have begun to loosen or disappear in recent weeks. It’s not clear whether the few states that still have requirements are enforcing them (Hawaii is a notable exception).

Although the number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day is still down from pre-pandemic years, it has risen substantially in the past few months — more than 1.7 million on May 17, for example, compared with around 244,000 on the same day in 2020 (though still far lower than the more than 2.6 million on May 17, 2019).

At the Airport

U.S. airports and major airlines report that they are following CDC guidelines for sanitizing public interfaces. This includes cleaning with disinfectant all check-in kiosks, ticket counters and gate seating — among other frequently touched areas — multiple times a day, as well as providing hand sanitizer throughout ticket and boarding areas.

The major airlines continue to require passengers to wear masks on board (except when they are eating or drinking) and throughout the airports they serve.

The TSA is asking travelers to use enhanced precautions during airport screening, including putting personal items such as wallets, phones and keys into carry-on bags instead of plastic bins, and staying 6 feet from others waiting in line. TSA officers are required to wear masks and gloves and to change gloves after a passenger pat-down, and travelers are required to wear masks as well.

Passengers are allowed to bring liquid hand sanitizer in containers up to 12 ounces in carry-on bags; previously, liquids could be in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces. And they are also allowed to board a flight with a driver’s license that expired beginning March 1, 2020, “to use it as acceptable ID at checkpoints for one year after expiration date, plus 60 days after the COVID-19 national emergency.” (Some people have been unable to renew their licenses because of the outbreak.)

And note that you now have until May 3, 2023 before you’ll need a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. The deadline was recently delayed from Oct. 1, 2021.

On the Plane

The CDC requires passengers and crew to wear masks while boarding and disembarking and during the flight. None of the airlines are still blocking middle seats to enable social distancing. A recent study suggested that blocking the middle seat offers a significant reduction in the risk of spreading COVID-19 when passengers are unmasked, but airlines have noted that passengers are masked.

While many airlines had stopped serving food and drinks during flights, some, such as Southwest and Delta, are beginning to do so again, depending on the length of the flight.  

All of the major U.S. airlines have equipped their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The CDC concurs, noting in its guidance for travel during the pandemic that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”

Airlines have been trying to address travelers’ concerns about trips by introducing temporary reprieves on change or cancellation penalties. But most are now again charging for changes to economy-fare tickets. (See more on airlines’ current policies here.)

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