Unmarried couples separated by COVID-19 travel ban seek ‘sweetheart’ exemption

ByMichael Wilner
McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS

WASHINGTON - Ever since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered global travel one year ago, thousands of Americans have pushed for an exception to U.S. restrictions that would allow unmarried couples separated by borders to reunite.

The restrictions first put in place last March have prevented foreign nationals from visiting their American partners for nearly a year. But an organized movement — known as Love is Not Tourism - is now pushing the Biden administration to consider an exception for these individuals, with no clear end in sight to the pandemic travel bans.

Love Is Not Tourism made some headway overseas last summer, successfully lobbying several European governments to create “sweetheart clauses” that allowed foreign nationals to visit their loved ones during the pandemic.

“We have indeed introduced a clause, love is not tourism - LINT,” Philippe Étienne, France’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “Our government thought it was not fair to prevent people from joining one another.”

Krishni Metivier, a leading American activist in the movement, worked with her partner in the Czech Republic on a campaign to convince his government to adopt a sweetheart clause – an exemption it implemented in the fall.

She has since turned her attention to advocacy in the United States, organizing a “Love Is Not Tourism Day” in December and writing a letter to President Joe Biden before his inauguration.

After the president’s team did not respond, Metivier published the letter in petition form, attracting thousands of signatures.

“We’ve been trying to bring this to his attention since Day One,” Metivier said. “We have seen overwhelming support and gratitude from binational couples, who don’t always feel like their voices are being heard.”

Other similar petitions have circulated online in recent days.

“We were very hopeful with his election that maybe we would get a different response, maybe the laws would change. We remain hopeful that he’ll do things differently,” Metivier said.

The movement found hope in one of White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s first media briefings when she said the administration was “reviewing and assessing” how to address the challenges facing unmarried couples kept apart by the travel restrictions. “Our team is looking into that,” she said.

But for now, the Biden administration appears unlikely to adopt an American “sweetheart clause.”

“At this time, the Department of State is not considering the granting of waivers or exceptions for unmarried couples to travel to the United States,” a State Department official said.

Most European travelers have been banned from entering the United States since March 14, 2020, and the United States also maintains travel restrictions on countries in Africa, Asia and South America. New U.S. restrictions were added last month on travelers from Brazil and South Africa as highly contagious variants of the coronavirus emerged from those countries.

Instead of making an exception to existing restrictions for unmarried couples, the Biden administration is more likely to consider easing U.S. restrictions on international travelers if the pandemic subsides in the coming months, amid signs that COVID-19 cases are on the decline both in Europe and the United States.

The United States marked a grim milestone this week, reaching over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began one year ago. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered reason for cautious optimism in recent days, noting that cases have decreased by 69% in the seven-day average since peaking in January.

In its final days in office, the Trump administration recommended lifting the international travel restrictions it first put in place on European countries, as long as inbound travelers were tested before arrival.

The Biden administration was quick to reject that proposal, coming in at a time when cases and deaths were rising to all-time highs. “With the pandemic worsening and more contagious variants spreading, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” Psaki said last month.

Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s new CDC director, frequently tells Americans that “now is not the time to travel.”

European nations also added new restrictions in January and February as highly contagious variants of COVID-19 began to emerge, with France temporarily suspending its “sweetheart clause” and restricting its citizens living abroad from visiting home.

But with coronavirus cases declining, those pressing for easing international travel restrictions are hopeful that Biden might soon revisit the matter.

On his first day in office, Biden implemented a policy mandating the use of masks in all airports and aboard all commercial flights, and requiring all individuals flying to the United States to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test to airlines prior to departure.

“They’re collecting data and they’re trying to see how the inbound testing mechanism is working. So I think maybe after they collect an adequate amount of data, in their view, and consider different options, we’re hopeful that they’ll look at some kind of time frame for reopening in the short term,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association. “They know that it’s important to the industry and to the economy.”

“So international inbound travel is quite significant for the industry,” Barnes said. “We believe that with the testing measures that are now in place for international inbound travel, as well as the mandatory mask mandate and other health and safety practices in place, we do think international travel can and should safely restart.”

Étienne said that France and other western European governments are communicating with the Biden administration on ways to reopen international travel in the coming months, depending on the success of U.S. and EU vaccination campaigns and the course of emerging coronavirus variants.

U.S. and European officials also hope to coordinate their travel reopenings, based on the circumstances on each side of the Atlantic and the advice of public health experts, Étienne said.

“We cannot wait for tourism to resume, and we are very sensitive to the fact that our American friends would like to travel again,” Étienne said. “This is the reason why the priority both in Europe and the U.S. is to win over the virus and vaccinate as quickly as possible many people as possible.”

“It’s difficult to give you a timetable, yet we are very mindful of what vaccination can help us to get in the coming months, and our deepest interest is to open borders,” Étienne said. “We want to do it as soon as possible.”