United States reopens to international travel, allows happy reunion

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SAN DIEGO (AP) – Parents held children born while stranded abroad. Longtime estranged couples hugged and the grandparents hugged their doubled grandchildren.

The United States fully reopened to many vaccinated international travelers on Monday, allowing families and friends to reunite for the first time since the coronavirus emerged and providing a boost to the travel industry decimated by the pandemic . The restrictions closed the United States to millions of people for 20 months.

Octavio Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter crossed a crosswalk in San Diego in less than 15 minutes to get to his mother-in-law’s house in California.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Alvarez, 43, who lives in Ensenada, Mexico, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Before the pandemic, his family traveled to California twice a month. The emotional cost of border restrictions was “very high”, he added.

U.S. citizens and permanent residents were still allowed to enter the United States, but travel bans immobilized tourists, thwarted business travelers, and often pushed families away.. Travelers must have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.

“I think a lot of people were waiting for this day,” said Eileen Bigelow, Vermont port regional manager for customs and border protection. “They see it as a light at the end of the tunnel for some return to normal.”

There have been a lot of extended hugs at airports from coast to coast. At Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Nirmit Shelat repeatedly kissed his girlfriend, Jolly Dave, after arriving from India, ending their nine-month separation. She was on the first flight out of the country to the United States.

“I can’t even explain in my words how happy I am,” Dave said.

Gaye Camara, who lives in France, last saw her husband in New York in January 2020, unaware it would be 21 months before they could hug each other again.

“I’m going to jump in his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said Camara, 40, as she rolled her luggage through Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, where the buzzing crowd looked like from before the pandemic, with the exception of face masks.

At the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, where commuting was a way of life before the pandemic, the reopening brought relief. Malls, restaurants, and stores in U.S. border towns have been devastated by lack of Mexican visitors.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, accompanied by US and Mexican officials at a celebratory press conference at the San Ysidro crossing, said the economic losses were significant and the severed family ties were “immeasurable.”

Retail sales in San Ysidro have fallen about 75% from pre-COVID levels, forcing nearly 300 businesses to close.

Edith Aguirre from Tijuana quit her job to go shopping in San Diego. Bursting with laughter, she accepted a gift bag from a duty free store at the San Diego border crossing. She was a regular at SeaWorld in San Diego and last came to the United States to celebrate her 50th birthday at Disneyland in February 2020.

“It was very exhausting,” she said of the interruption to her cross-border life.

Sales fell by half at David’s Western Wear store in Nogales, Ariz., Which makes boots popular among Mexicans.

Owner David Moore hopes his specialty products will attract customers, but he said it won’t happen overnight. Many Mexicans are still trying to renew their expired visas amid a backlog. Those who come may be disappointed to find empty shelves due to supply chain issues.

“I really don’t think Mexican buyers are going to end up in hordes because they’ve gotten used to buying a lot of the stuff they need from Mexico now,” he said.

David Jerome, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce on the Mexican border in Texas, said: “It won’t come back as quickly as it was closed.”

Yet “we feel like we are getting our neighbors back and we are happy that people are going back to work,” Jérôme said.

Along the Canadian border, cross-border hockey rivalries have been shattered by travel restrictions. Churches that had members on both sides of the border were suddenly cut off from each other.

But on Monday, border traffic quickly returned.

At Vermont’s busiest international crossing point with Canada, U.S. border officials said they began to notice a slight increase in border crossing shortly after midnight. By mid-morning, traffic seemed stable.

Travelers at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, one of the northern border’s busiest crossings, found a 2.5-hour wait to 2 a.m., officials said, although a few hours later , traffic flowed more freely. The bridge typically handles around 2 million passenger vehicles from Fort Erie, Ontario each year, many of which go to area shopping malls, ski trails and sporting events. The volume fell by more than 90% during the pandemic.

River Robinson’s American partner couldn’t be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago. She was thrilled to hear of the reopening of the United States and was planning to take the child to the United States for Thanksgiving.

It’s “crazy to think he has a whole different side of family that he hasn’t even met yet,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ont.

Airlines are bracing for an increase in activity – especially from Europe – after the pandemic and the resulting restrictions have plunged international travel.

The 28 banned European countries accounted for 37% of foreign visitors in 2019, according to the US Travel Association. As the reopening takes effect, carriers are increasing flights between the UK and the US by 21% this month compared to last month, according to data from travel and analytics firm Cirium.

A sign of the enormous importance of transatlantic travel to airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic celebrated the reopening by synchronizing the departures of their morning flights to New York on parallel runways at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Maria Giribet, 74, who lives on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, was heading to San Francisco where she planned to “smother” her twin grandchildren with hugs after missing half of their lives. Gabriel and David are now 3 and a half years old.

The United States will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those used in the United States. This is a relief for many in Canada, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is widely used.

But millions of people around the world who have been vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSino, or other vaccines not approved by the WHO will not be able to make it to the United States.

Testing and quarantine requirements remained obstacles for others. A mobile test truck was parked near the Peace Bridge in New York City, promising results in 30 minutes for $ 225 and results the next day for $ 160.

Marcela Picone, 39, of the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, looks forward to the day her fiance and father of her 2 and 3-year-old children can visit her from Stoney Creek, Ont. But her 15-year-old son would have to miss school to self-quarantine when they return if they travel.

“He is the father of two American children,” she said. “He should have been allowed to come to this country for 19 months. “

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Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York. Associated Press editors John Leicester in Paris, Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, Wilson Ring in Highgate Springs, Vermont, Anita Snow in Phoenix, Rob Gillies in Toronto, and Ted Shaffrey in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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