How Travel Restrictions Work

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Good morning. Travel restrictions have been one of the most effective pandemic responses — if they’re strict.

One of the biggest lessons of the pandemic has been the success of travel restrictions at reducing its spread. And this is a moment when they have the potential to be particularly effective in the U.S., given the emergence of even more dangerous coronavirus variants in other countries.

President Biden seems to realize this, and has reinstated some travel restrictions that President Donald Trump lifted just before leaving office.

It’s not yet clear whether Biden will impose the kind of strict rules that have worked best elsewhere. So far, he has chosen a middle ground between Trump’s approach and the approaches with the best global track record.

Many of the places that have contained the virus have relied on travel restrictions. The list includes Australia, Ghana, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Canada’s four Atlantic provinces. At key points, they imposed severe restrictions on who could enter.

There is a crucial word in that sentence: severe. Travel bans work only when countries don’t allow a lot of exceptions.

Barring citizens of other countries while freely allowing your own citizens to return, for example, is ineffectual. “Viruses don’t care what passport you carry,” my colleague Donald G. McNeil Jr., who’s been covering infectious diseases since the 1990s, told me.

Voluntary quarantines generally don’t work either, since many people don’t adhere to them. Some take mild precautions and still describe themselves as “quarantining.” As Donald says: “For it to work, it has to be mandatory — and actually enforced. And not at home.”

Australia versus the U.S.

Australia crushed the spread of the virus in the spring partly by ending its voluntary quarantine and requiring all arrivals, including Australian citizens, to spend two weeks in a hotel. The military then helped enforce the rules. China and some other Asian countries took similar steps. In eastern Canada, tough entry rules were “one of the most successful things we’ve done,” Dr. Susan Kirkland, a Nova Scotia official, has said.

Travel bans had such a big effect, Dr. Jared Baeten, a prominent epidemiologist, told me last year, that public-health experts should re-examine their longtime skepticism of them. “Travel,” he said, “is the hallmark of the spread of this virus around the world.”

Last year, the U.S. became a case study in the ineffectiveness of limited travel rules after Trump announced a ban on entry from China. Because it didn’t apply to U.S. citizens or their immediate family members, among others, and because Trump did little to restrict entry from Europe, the measures had little effect.

The Biden administration now risks a repeat.

Infectious variants of the virus that are spreading in Brazil and South Africa could be even more dangerous than a strong new variant found in Britain, scientists say. In response, Biden is restricting entry from Europe, Brazil and South Africa, but the policy has multiple exceptions: Americans can return home from these places if they have recently tested negative, even though the test result may not be current.

The politics of travel bans are certainly thorny. Businesses worry about the economic impact (as The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright noted in a fascinating radio interview with Terry Gross). Progressives worry about stoking anti-immigration views. And it’s already too late to keep the variants out of the U.S. entirely.

Yet travel restrictions can still save lives. The U.S. is in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible before they contract the virus, and the new variants are the biggest new challenge in doing so. “I am worried about these variants,” Dr. Vivek Murthy, the co-chair of Biden’s virus task force, said on the first episode of Ezra Klein’s Times podcast.

The U.S. travel restrictions will almost certainly have some impact by keeping out some infected people. But Biden’s policy stops short of minimizing the virus’s spread.


The Virus

Biden has vowed to reopen schools quickly, but it won’t be easy. In Chicago, the teachers’ union said its members had authorized a strike if the district sought to force teachers back.

Minnesota’s health department said it had detected a variant found in Brazil in someone who recently traveled to the country. “With the world travel that you have,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “it’s not surprising.”

The drug maker Merck abandoned two vaccines because neither produced a strong immune response. The U.S. has authorized two vaccines and will probably need more to subdue the virus this year. Here’s how quickly countries are vaccinating their populations.

California lifted severe restrictions in parts of the state, allowing some outdoor dining and personal-care services. But experts worry that new virus variants could threaten recent progress.

Cases are surging among incarcerated people in New York. State officials have not announced when inmates will be vaccinated.

Biden and Congress

Senator Mitch McConnell dropped his demand that Democrats promise to keep the filibuster — the procedural tool that can grind the Senate to a halt — as part of any power-sharing agreement in the chamber.

The outcome is probably a temporary solution. “Democrats will come under mounting pressure from activists to jettison the rule,” The Times’s Carl Hulse writes.

Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia had voiced support for keeping the filibuster.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, says he won’t seek a third term next year, citing “partisan gridlock.” (Nan Whaley, a rising Democrat in the state, talked with The Times about the party’s struggles there.)

Biden will move to stop new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. He has also reversed Trump’s ban on transgender troops.

The Biden administration is looking to speed up the process of putting the abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the $20 bill, reviving an Obama-era push.

Trump Fallout

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest-serving Democratic senator, will preside over Trump’s impeachment trial. (The Constitution specifies that the chief justice preside over the trial of a sitting president. It does not give clear guidance on who should oversee those for others.)

The Justice Department’s watchdog is investigating whether any department officials worked to overturn the presidential election result.

Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine company, is suing Rudy Giuliani, accusing him of “a viral disinformation campaign.”

The Supreme Court dismissed two lawsuits that accused Trump of violating the Constitution by profiting from his businesses while in office.

Other Big Stories

A tornado barreled through a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., trapping people in their homes and setting off frantic rescue efforts.

Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, will resign, a move that will probably result in the collapse of the country’s government.

Leon Black will step down as chief executive of Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm, after an inquiry found that he had paid more than $150 million to Jeffrey Epstein.

CBS suspended two of its top television executives, Peter Dunn and David Friend, over accusations of racism, sexism and misogyny, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, is getting a makeover. During its longest closure since World War II, hundreds of experts are renovating it.

Morning Reads

A Morning Read: The last known female Swinhoe’s softshell turtle died in 2019 — or so scientists thought.

From Opinion: Jamelle Bouie, Ross Douthat and Jennifer Senior have columns. (And, over on the news side, a new one by DealBook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin.)

Lives Lived: At a time when there were few Black astrophysicists, George Carruthers developed a telescope that went to the moon on Apollo 16, producing images of Earth’s outermost atmosphere, stars and galaxies. He died at 81.


A celebration of books

This year is the 125th anniversary of the The New York Times Book Review. It started in 1896, originally called “Saturday Review of Books and Art.” The first issue — eight pages — included an article about Oscar Wilde’s experience in prison and another about department stores posing a threat to independent booksellers.

Most reviewers in the early days were anonymous and simply summarized the books. “There wasn’t as much opining,” said Tina Jordan, an editor whose new book about the Book Review’s history is due out in October. “There were exceptions, of course; a handful of books got absolutely demolished in our pages.” Some headlines: “Worthless Edition of a Poor Anthology,” “Two Pathetic Novels,” “Sundry Novels: Some Worth Reading and Others Not Worth the Printing.”

Earlier versions of the section were also less strict about conflicts of interest. “In the 1950s, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes reviewed each other,” a practice of mutual reviews that is no longer allowed, said Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review. “Neither was especially kind,” she said, although they also appreciated each other’s talents.

You’ll find 25 old reviews by notable figures here. They include Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy, Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith and Eudora Welty — who worked briefly as an editor at the Book Review during World War II.


What to Cook

A drizzle of garlic-infused butter improves this fish dinner.

Gaming A-listers

Tyler Blevins — Ninja, to video-game fans — is the closest thing gaming has to a crossover mainstream star. The 29-year-old says he makes $500,000 a month from streaming. He spoke about what’s next.

Virtual Travel

Take a trip through snow-covered mountain passes and herds of reindeer to a remote farm in eastern Iceland.

Late Night

The late-night hosts talked about impeachment.

Now Time to Play

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was armadillo. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Kick back and relax (five letters).

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. A hidden haiku in Bill Gates’s Times review of Yuval Noah Harari’s book: “What will give our lives / meaning in the decades and / centuries ahead?”

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is an interview with Fauci. On the latest “Sway,” Kara Swisher interviews Chris Best of the newsletter platform Substack.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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