In his first week in office, President Joe Biden has reimposed a host of COVID-19 travel restrictions, while also repealing Donald Trump's discriminatory Muslim ban.
The actions mean the US will now start allowing visitors from predominantly Muslim and African countries who were previously restricted from entering the US under Trump. At the same time, Biden is extending coronavirus-related travel restrictions for most travelers from Europe, the UK, Ireland, and Brazil, while also adding South Africa to the list.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the restrictions are part of the new administration's escalating efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 as more contagious variants of the virus emerge across the world.
Starting on Jan. 30, Biden's presidential proclamation bans entry for most non-US citizens who have recently been to South Africa, where a new COVID-19 variant has been identified.
Trump had signed a proclamation that would lift the coronavirus-related travel restrictions from those countries starting Tuesday, deeming them unnecessary once all passengers were required to present a negative COVID-19 test before flying.
At the time, Psaki criticized Trump's decision in a tweet, saying, "With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel."
On Monday, Biden reversed Trump's order and extended the ban that will continue to restrict entry for most non-US citizens who have been in Brazil, the UK, Ireland, and the European countries that form the Schengen Area for the last 14 days.
Those exempt from the COVID-19 travel ban include lawful permanent residents of the US, noncitizen nationals of the US, and noncitizens who are married to a US citizen or a permanent resident, among others. A full list of the exceptions can be found here.
Biden also directed the heads of the State Department and Homeland Security to ensure those subject to the ban do not board US-bound flights and that violators be removed.
Contagious variants of the coronavirus have been detected in the UK, Brazil, and South Africa. While there is no evidence yet that they cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death, the CDC said a rise in cases will strain health resources in the US where more than 400,000 people have died of COVID-19.
While the South African variant has not yet been detected in the US, the first confirmed US case of the Brazil variant was detected in a Minnesota resident who had recently traveled to the South American country, the state's health department announced Monday.
The strain that was originally discovered in the UK in December has now spread to multiple countries. In the US, the CDC has identified nearly 300 cases of the UK variant in more than 20 states.
The CDC announced all travelers to the US — including US citizens — must present a negative COVID-19 test result. However, those subject to Biden's COVID-19 travel ban cannot enter the US even if they present a negative test result, the CDC noted.
He directed the State Department to restart processing visas for people from countries like Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and Nigeria.
During a press briefing Monday, Psaki was asked to address why Biden was imposing coronavirus-related travel restrictions on other countries when Trump had repeatedly claimed that Biden called him "xenophobic" for restricting travel from China during the pandemic. (The Biden campaign said that he never directly criticized the travel restrictions.)
Psaki said Biden overturned the Muslim ban because he felt it was "xenophobic," but that he had supported pandemic-related travel restrictions even before his inauguration.
"[Biden] was critical of the former president for having a policy that was not more comprehensive than travel restrictions," she said. "And he conveyed at the time, and more recently, the importance of having a multifaceted approach — mask-wearing, vaccine distribution funding in order to get 100 million shots in the arms of Americans in the first 100 days, not just travel restrictions."