The United States will not lift any existing travel restrictions "at this point" due to concerns over the highly transmissible Covid-19 Delta variant and the rising number of US coronavirus cases, the White House confirmed on Monday.
The decision, which was first reported by Reuters, comes after a senior level White House meeting late on Friday. It means that the long-running travel restrictions that have barred much of the world's population from the United States since 2020 will not be lifted in the short term.
"Given where we are today ... with the Delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday, citing the spread of the Delta variant in the United States and abroad. "Driven by the Delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated and appear likely continue to increase in the weeks ahead."
The announcement almost certainly dooms any bid by US airlines and the US tourism industry to salvage summer travel by Europeans and others covered by the restrictions. Airlines have heavily lobbied the White House for months to lift the restrictions and some say the industry may now have to wait until September or later for a possible revision.
The United States currently bars most non-US citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without internal border controls, or in Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.
The extraordinary US travel restrictions were first imposed on China in January 2020 to address the spread of Covid-19. Other countries have since been added, most recently India in early May.
Last week, the US Homeland Security Department said US land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to nonessential travel until at least August 21 - even as Canada said it would begin allowing in fully vaccinated American tourists starting August 9.
Asked on July 15 at a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about when the United States would lift European travel restrictions, US President Joe Biden said he would "be able to answer that question to you within the next several days - what is likely to happen."
Merkel said any decision to lift restrictions "has to be a sustainable decision. It is certainly not sensible to have to take it back after only a few days."
Since that news conference, US cases have jumped.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky said on Thursday the seven-day average of new cases in the United States was up 53% over the previous week. The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now comprises more than 80 per cent of new cases nationwide and has been detected in more than 90 countries.
Psaki also cited the fact that last week, the CDC urged Americans to avoid travel to the United Kingdom, given a jump in cases.
The restrictions have brought heavy criticism from people prevented from seeing loved ones and the White House has acknowledged a desire to reunite separated families.
The Biden administration has refused to offer any metrics that would trigger when it will unwind restrictions and has not disclosed if it will remove restrictions on individual countries or focus on enhancing individual traveler scrutiny.
Reuters reported last week the White House was discussing the potential of mandating Covid-19 vaccines for international visitors, but no decisions have been made, sources briefed on the matter said. That idea remains under active discussion, they said.
The Biden administration has also been talking to US airlines in recent weeks about establishing international contact tracing for passengers before lifting travel restrictions.