U.S. to require traveler quarantines, EU strengthens mask requirement over fears of new Covid variants

Jan 23, 2021

In addition to the strengthening mask-wearing requirements on airlines and in airports, the newly installed U.S. government of President Joe Biden announced this week that it will require all travelers arriving in the country to quarantine for at least seven days. The government said the quarantine will depend on cooperation from travelers but will include monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

Travelers entering the U.S. will face new entry requirements, including testing and quarantine, due to Covid concerns.

In Europe, in addition to imposing new entrance requirements, several governments are considering banning most commonly used face masks and requiring the use of the FFP2 mask instead. The FFP2 is similar to the N95 mask used in other parts of the world.

The latest moves have been prompted in part by the emergence of new Covid-19 variants and concern infections could overwhelm healthcare systems. The new measures, including new restrictions on foreigners entering the U.S. and the EU, took on new urgency Friday when British researchers said that the new variant identified two months ago in Wales may not only be more contagious but 30 percent more deadly as well. Earlier medical opinion held that on a case-by-case basis, the variant posed the same risks as earlier versions of the virus.

U.S. tourism interests and airlines have voiced strong objections to the new quarantine plan. The U.S. Travel Association, which represents more than 1,000 tourist-related businesses, supports the mask and testing requirements but is opposed to mandatory quarantines. “We think there is a challenge when it comes to quarantines,” said Tori Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the group, said. “It will inflict great harm on the tourism and airline industries.”

A spokeswoman for International Air Transport Association also expressed alarm at the order, saying it could drastically reduce foreign air travel into the U.S. which is slowly recovering from the travel bans in 2020.

The quarantine is in addition to the one imposed by the outgoing Trump administration that all travelers entering the U.S. must present a negative Covid test result, a rule that goes into effect January 26.

In addition to the quarantine, those entering the U.S. will be required to take a second test within three to five days of arrival. If the test result is positive, a second quarantine will be required.

While a U.S. government rule for mask usage could be enforced under existing laws, ensuring that tens of thousands of people isolate after international travel will be a near-impossible task, said the leader of a travel advocacy group. “I don’t know how in the world we are ever going to enforce that,” said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United Inc. “I’m really interested in seeing how we are going to come up with an effective quarantine program in the United States. It’s not like New Zealand, where they only have two airports and very limited flights.”

When asked about quarantine enforcement, new presidential press secretary Jen Psaki said details on all the new Covid health orders would be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Canadian health ministry said it may require all incoming travelers to quarantine for 14 days at designated hotels, supervised by government medical staff. The ministry said the rule, if adopted, would apply to Canadian citizens as well as foreigners and that travelers would be charged for all hotel expenses.

Germany is the second country, after Austria, to require the FFP2 mask and France, Denmark and Belgium are considering the mandate. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, FFP2 masks have been proven to filter out at least 94% of particles, including Covid, and could effectively bring an end to the pandemic.

Some virologists warn, however, that compulsory mask rule could be counter-productive. “In theory, the move to more professional masks is welcome,” said Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a German virologist and Professor of Arbovirology at the University of Hamburg. “But I’d be wary of simply copying the Austrian model without considering the possible downsides,” he said.

“In most cases FFP2 masks will be ineffective if they aren’t professionally fitted: people will end up breathing through the gap between mask and face rather than through the designated filter.” Virologists also say that beards can prevent the masks from sealing properly around the face. “Are we planning to ban beards?” Schmidt-Chanasit asks. “I don’t intend to shave mine.”