Certain countries use COVID-19 color maps: Here’s what this system means for your travel

Sep 6, 2021

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As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, countries have taken steps to mitigate how risky it is to allow tourists within their borders.

Some have begun using color-coded lists, maps or so-called traffic light systems to assess COVID-19 conditions on the ground and whether tourists should be subject to entry restrictions.

Unfortunately, the lists aren’t standardized around the world, or even within the European Union, where several countries have color-coded risk assessments but use different methodologies. And even for the most seasoned traveler, they can frankly be confusing.

Not all countries use color maps or codes, but you should pay attention if you have travel planned to a country that does. Here’s what you need to know.

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What COVID-19 color codes mean for your travel plans

Brussels, Belgium (Image via Getty Images)

These maps may not seem important, but they can determine whether certain activities are open, if you’ll be subject to strict entry requirements as a tourist or even if you’re allowed into the country at all.

Belgium, for example, assigns every country a color, which can be red, orange or green. Travel requirements for tourists depend on the color code assigned to a particular country. The most restrictive is the red zone. Under this designation, travelers may only enter Belgium for essential reasons or if they are fully vaccinated.

Belgium recently added the U.S. to its “red zone” in light of the European Union recommending travel restrictions for U.S. visitors. A “red zone” designation means Belgium considers the U.S. a place where people are at a high risk of COVID-19 infection — but that doesn’t mean American travelers are subject to more restrictions (more on that below).

Other countries use color systems to gauge conditions in their own nations.

Italy, for instance, uses a color map (white, yellow, orange and red) that assesses epidemiological risk throughout the country.

Most of the country, including Rome, is currently under the “white” designation, which means people can move between other white and yellow areas without limits. Nightclubs are open, but dancing is banned.

Just one area, Sicily, is currently designated “yellow.” There aren’t many restrictions; indoor activities such as performances in theaters are allowed but with capacity limits. In the “orange zone,” spas are closed and shopping malls (which are extremely popular in Italy) can only open on weekdays. People in “red zone” areas can only leave home for essential reasons, such as work or to buy groceries.

Mexico uses a traffic light system to decide what is allowed to open or must remain closed in its states. The four metrics to assess the colors (green, yellow, orange and red) represent the trend in new cases, hospital occupancy trends and occupancy rates.

If you plan to travel to Mexico, you should consult the traffic light system before you go, as it can mean the difference between being able to party (if that’s your inclination) or being stuck inside your hotel room.

Suppose you wanted to visit a “green” area (just one Mexican state is currently green). In that case, you could participate in indoor and outdoor activities such as clubs and museums with no capacity restrictions. You wouldn’t be permitted to bar-hop or visit a nightclub in the popular destinations of Mexico City or Cancun unless the government downgrades them from the “orange.”

(Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)

However, if you vacationed in a “red” Mexican state, such as Nuevo León, you’d likely spend most of your vacation inside your hotel room, as only essential activities are permitted.

But ultimately, do these color systems mean much? Countries can (and do) make exceptions.

For instance, the Belgium government explicitly states that the red zone restrictions do not apply to certain countries — including the United States.

That’s because Belgium added the U.S. to its “white list” of red zone countries, which means nonessential travel is still allowed despite the EU recommendation. Vaccinated travelers still don’t have to quarantine or test before arrival, while unvaccinated travelers must show a negative PCR test taken at least 72 hours before arrival.

It’s unclear why Belgium whitelisted the U.S., even as it remains in the red zone. According to Belgium’s own designation, countries are added to its red zone if it considers them places where people are at a high risk of COVID-19 infection. The U.S. is experiencing its highest surges of COVID-19 cases since January, as more than 160,000 Americans tested positive for the virus on Aug. 31.

The white list also includes Israel, Lebanon and Azerbaijan.

And in Mexico, the party never stopped in Tulum, located in Quintana Roo, even though the entire state is “orange” and bars, in theory, should be closed.

Bottom line

Color maps are just another sign that COVID-19 has changed travel. Countries have to assess how risky it is for their own citizens and tourists to take part in certain activities such as indoor dining or visiting sporting events, especially as the pandemic situation can vary by country.

While you should pay attention to a country’s color code system (if it has one), don’t be surprised if a country bends the rules for some travelers — or doesn’t enforce them at all. Either way, you’re likely to avoid surprises if you’re aware of your destination’s color before you even arrive.

Featured photo by Kirill Rudenko/Getty Images

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