Here’s why a vaccine mandate for international travel could be on the way

Sep 17, 2021

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The White House’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, made waves after saying he would support a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel.

“I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people that you should be vaccinated,” Fauci told theSkimm last week. (Fauci slightly walked back his comments saying he wasn’t proposing a plan, but would support a mandate.)

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The idea is one the travel industry and the federal government can’t seem to agree on, yet it is gaining steam among Americans. And a member of Congress recently introduced a bill to require passengers to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to travel domestically on airplanes and trains.

Still, Fauci’s comments are the most concrete proof that the White House is considering a shift in policy in light of the highly transmissible delta variant’s spread in the United States and around th world. And now, the Biden administration is reportedly considering requiring vaccinations against COVID-19 for international visitors to the U.S., according to the Associated Press.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that proof of a COVID-19 vaccine could be possible for international air travel. But requiring vaccines for domestic travelers is likely to be another political flashpoint in the fight against COVID-19, one that has already divided Americans.

Could a vaccine mandate for travel really happen?

Passengers proceed through the TSA security checkpoint at Denver International Airport in August, 2019. Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

If the U.S. did decide to pass a mandate, there’s precedent for requiring proof of vaccination to enter a country.

Travelers to parts of the world, such as West Africa, must have the yellow fever vaccine before entry. Many of these countries, including Ghana, require proof of a yellow fever vaccine and won’t allow you to enter the country without it.

Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas, will ban travelers who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 when it resumes international flights later this year.

And, much closer to home, Canada began requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all air and rail travel in August.

There are several factors the White House would have to consider if it did decide to implement a policy — but it is possible, experts say.

Nick Rathod, the former White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs under the Obama administration, told TPG that the White House would likely be considering legal ramifications and the burden such a mandate would place on the travel industry.

“They must be weighing the cost-benefit,” he said. “The central question for the Biden team is, ‘Would this be something that would be effective at increasing vaccinations?’”

Dangling the ability to travel based on proof of vaccination is a bold idea, but other incentives — such as cash prizes — haven’t worked. And with nearly 670,000 Americans dead from the virus, requiring proof of vaccination for domestic and foreign travelers may be a way to encourage vaccine-hesitant Americans to finally get innoculated.

According to a report by The New York Times, there’s been a 77% decrease in new COVID-19 doses reported per day from the peak in April. That drop in vaccinations could be what prompted Biden to issue an executive order that companies with more than 100 employees would be required to mandate workers either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. The order was issued as part of broader measures to control the COVID-19 spread in the U.S.

The thinking is that as more people are required to be vaccinated for work or school, there will be less need for enforcement at the federal level.

But will people — and the travel industry — get on board with more mandates?

So far, some airlines (and Amtrak) have required employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 while others have avoided the topic entirely.

United Airlines, for example, has mandated vaccinations among employees. Employees who refuse will be fired, while those with legitimate medical or religious exemptions will be placed on leave. Delta Air Lines followed several weeks later by announcing a $200 monthly surcharge for unvaccinated employees on the airline’s health plan, along with weekly testing requirements for unvaccinated employees.

The warning appears to have worked, to a degree. Delta said on Sept. 9 that 20% of its 20,000 unvaccinated staffers have since gotten vaccinated.

But imposing a vaccine requirement for travelers, as opposed to employees, has received a mixed reception.

For instance, United CEO Scott Kirby told NPR on Sept. 10 he didn’t think it was appropriate for individual airlines to require proof of vaccination but seemed open to the idea of the federal government taking the lead on a mandate.

“I think that mandating vaccines for passengers is really a government issue,” Kirby said. “For us to do that, we would probably require some sort of government directive.”

Others — such as Airlines for America — remained noncommittal about the idea. A spokeswoman for the airline trade organization told TPG it was committed to “leaning into science to guide policies and protocols” and would continue to enforce the federal travel mask mandate.

A man, woman, and young child, all wearing masks, wheel luggage through an airport.
(Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

And among those in the firm “no” category: the U.S. Travel Association, the organization that represents the travel industry, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of airlines worldwide.

In response to Fauci’s comments, U.S. Travel stated it disagreed with a vaccine mandate, saying that it would impact families with young children who are currently ineligible to be vaccinated.

“U.S. Travel has long maintained that there should be no mandatory vaccination requirement for domestic travel,” executive vice president Tori Emerson Barnes said in a statement.

IATA has previously said that COVID-19 vaccination should not be required for international travel and that it expected that a “significant majority” of travelers would be willing to get vaccinated.

There’s data to back up that claim. According to a survey conducted by the points and miles website Upgraded Points, 74% of travelers say proof of vaccination should be required to fly on an airplane. More than half (58%) of respondents said only vaccinated travelers should be allowed to travel domestically, and 66% said a vaccine should be required to travel abroad.

Some experts in the travel industry feel that instead of a domestic mandate, a requirement should first be piloted for vaccinated Europeans, who are still banned (along with unvaccinated travelers) from entering the U.S.

Currently, about 55% of Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and the U.S trails behind much of the West, including Canada. But several European countries, such as Portugal, have vaccinated the vast majority of their citizens.

Such a policy, according to Joe Leader, the CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), is more likely than a domestic mandate, which likely wouldn’t gain steam unless the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. further deteriorates.

“What has not worked well during the pandemic is making massive [policy] changes overnight,” Leader said. “By allowing vaccinated Europeans to finally enter our country, I believe [the White House] could have a phenomenal case showing that this works and works effectively and easily for foreign nationals.”

Bottom line

While it’s not yet clear if the U.S. will put a domestic or international vaccine mandate in place, there are signs that we’re getting closer to one. But the travel industry’s contradictory opinions on the matter, as well as the potential impacts a mandate could have on an already struggling industry, could be significant roadblocks.

What is clear is that many travelers do in fact support a vaccine mandate for not just international travel but domestic travel as well. The White House will have to balance what the travel industry wants — and its precarious financial situation during the pandemic — with a meaningful solution that will help the U.S. turn a corner in the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Featured photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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