The U.S. fully reopened to many vaccinated international travelers on Monday, allowing families and friends to reunite for the first time since the coronavirus emerged and offering a boost to the travel industry decimated by the pandemic. The restrictions closed the U.S. to millions of people for 20 months.
Octavio Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter zipped through a pedestrian crossing in San Diego in less than 15 minutes on their way to visit his mother-in-law in California.
“It’s a big feeling,” said Alvarez, 43, who lives in Ensenada, Mexico, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Prior to the pandemic, his family would visit California twice a month. The emotional cost of the border restrictions were “very high,” he added.
American citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the U.S., but the travel bans grounded tourists, thwarted business travelers and often keep families far apart. Travelers must have proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test.
“I think a lot of people have been waiting for this day,” said Eileen Bigelow, area port director for Vermont for Customs and Border Protection. “They look at it as a light at the end of the tunnel for some return of normalcy.”
There were lots of prolonged hugs at airports from coast to coast. At Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Nirmit Shelat repeatedly embraced his girlfriend, Jolly Dave, after she arrived from India, ending their nine-month separation. She was on the first flight out of the country to the United States.
“I can’t even explain in my words how happy I am,” Dave said.
Gaye Camara, who lives in France, last saw her husband in New York in January 2020, not knowing it would be 21 months before they could hold each other again.
“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said Camara, 40, as she wheeled her luggage through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, where the humming crowds resembled those before the pandemic, except for the face masks.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, flanked by U.S. and Mexican officials at a celebratory news conference at the San Ysidro crossing, said the economic losses were hefty and the cutting of family ties “immeasurable.”
Retail sales in San Ysidro fell about 75 percent from pre-Covid levels, forcing nearly 300 businesses to close.