Reactions are mixed regarding a new mandate from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requiring negative COVID-19 tests from all inbound air passengers to the U.S.
The test must be taken within 72 hours of boarding the plane; those who cannot provide a negative test will be refused boarding by the airline. This measure is an added layer to an already-complex network of travel requirements worldwide, which vary at both the national and state levels. Depending on which country clients decide to visit, they may run into various quarantine rules, in-destination testing requirements or, in the case of the EU, travel bans.
Reactions to the CDC’s new order range from praise that additional testing is a necessary step to help curb the spread of the virus, to criticism that it will not effectively halt the spread of COVID-19 and will only make the process of booking travel more complicated for travel advisors and clients.
Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at U.S. Travel Association, applauded the new CDC order, saying that “a testing requirement provides yet another layer of safety for international travel,” but added that it “should be accompanied by other risk-based policies — including lifting international inbound travel restrictions and dropping any post-arrival quarantine requirements.”
However, CDC currently recommends travelers follow arrival in the U.S. with seven days of quarantine and getting tested three to five days after travel.
I am as anxious as anyone to see the travel industry thrive again. With that said, we need to get this current COVID-19 surge under control.
Travel advisor Kara Slater of SmartFlyer also shared her support of the order — despite any interruptions it may cause in the short term to her business.
“I am as anxious as anyone to see the travel industry thrive again,” Slater said. “With that said, we need to get this current COVID-19 surge under control. More testing seems to be fundamental to slowing the spread. I’m ready to book less international travel in the short term to get back to business for the long term.”
Advisor Andrey Zakharenko of Always Travel says that the order is “six to eight months too late, but that it’s better late than never.”
But not everyone is so sure that a 72-hour COVID-19 test will help stop the spread of the virus.
The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), for example, shared that it supports accurate, rapid-response testing in lieu of mandatory quarantines and travel bans, but that a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure will not ensure that COVID-19 will not spread.
“It is very possible to be infected within 72 hours of having received a negative test result,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of ASTA, in a statement. “As the CDC has already acknowledged, on its own, the new testing regulation will not halt the virus’ spread due to lag time between test and flight, incubation period and false positives."
ASTA is especially concerned about what additional logistical challenges this order might produce.
"When travelers are stranded because they are unable to obtain an in-destination test in time for departure (if at all), this will set off a domino effect throughout the supply chain — stranded passengers, missed connections and canceled flights” Kerby said. “The inability to procure a test and the uncertainty of being stranded will cause many travelers to postpone plans, resulting in further mental, emotional and economic harm. At the least, the CDC should communicate its list of exempted destinations so that travel advisors and consumers can make informed decisions regarding their travel plans.”
Travel Advisors to the Rescue
Since CDC released the update yesterday, many travel advisors have been wondering how the order might affect their clients with international travel plans after Jan. 26.
“I was up late last night emailing all 72 of my clients traveling between Jan. 26 and March 26, making them aware of the new CDC policy,” said Donna Alkarmi, president of Lone Star Travel. “Then I spent the rest of the night emailing all my wonderful contacts at the resorts I sell for their responses on what they will be offering in way of the negative COVID-19 viral test conducted within the three days before clients’ flights to the U.S. depart. Sometimes I get clients doing a quick three- to four-night getaway: How do they get that test back in time?”
Implementing such a requirement without a rapid-response, reliable test threatens to create a logistical crisis.
Many advisors are proactively reaching out to clients, letting them know that they will update them as soon as CDC releases more information.
Today, CDC published answers to some of these frequently asked questions, including what kind of tests will be accepted, what happens in the case of connecting flights and flight delays, what travelers can do if they test positive and more.
Alkarmi is currently researching what hotels will offer testing if a client tests positive and cannot return to the U.S. as scheduled.
“Clients are more concerned about a positive test, with the possibility of it being wrong, then they are of being stuck [in destination] for two weeks,” she said. “Each hotel is so different in how they are proceeding with this, and that is what is so frustrating at this moment.”
Sarah Attaway, travel advisor and owner of Sea to City Travels, is most concerned about client reactions to potentially getting “stranded” in a country due to a positive COVID-19 test.
“A test before leaving home isn’t causing people to cancel because if they are positive, at least they are at home,” she said. “But a positive test in a foreign country requires extra funds for quarantine and some clients could potentially lose their job due to missed days at work. I have not had clients cancel yet, but some people are considering.”
This order is another roadblock for advisors to navigate in an already challenging year.
“My agency has been hanging on by a thread,” said Vonnie Hicks, owner and travel advisor at First Class Travel. “We had just started seeing an uptick in bookings since the vaccine rollout. With the new restrictions, I expect a rush of cancellations.”
Fortunately, governments welcoming U.S. travelers are beginning to share details of how they will make tests readily available to travelers.
"Anticipating that the government of the United States of America could take a measure like this, we've established a working group that is coordinating with private laboratories certified by the Ministry of Health to administer the RT-PCR tests in Costa Rica,” said the Costa Rican Tourism Institute in a release. “The plan is to have these tests available to U.S. travelers, and tourists of other nationalities, throughout the country, for less than $100 each. The world is experiencing a pandemic whose trend is to take action and adjust to changes on the fly.”
Indeed, reactions to the CDC order are not the only thing that is mixed: The response will be piecemeal as well. Travel advisors, as usual, are up to the task.
“I am working all angles today to give this info to my clients as quickly as possible,” Alkarmi said.