More than four months ago, President Joe Biden said in a seemingly unplanned moment during an appearance on the 60 minutes that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
But on Tuesday, hours before the president is set to deliver his annual State of the Union address to Congress, the Biden administration announced its opposition to a Republican effort to end a piece of longstanding U.S. policy regarding the pandemic: a vaccine mandate for all foreign travelers entering the U.S. by air. through.
“Although COVID-19 is no longer the devastating threat it once was, the administration opposes action by Congress to waive the vaccination requirement for non-citizen immigrants entering the United States by air,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement. “This policy has allowed loved ones around the world to be reunited while reducing the spread of COVID-19 and the burden it places on the health care system in the United States.”
The statement was released in response to a bill sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) to prohibit enforcement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) vaccine mandate for foreign travelers. In remarks in the House of Representatives last month, Massie called the mandate “unscientific, illogical, [and] unconstitutional.”
“Why are we forcing visitors to this country to get vaccinated just to come visit their friends and family? Why are we separating families over this?” He said. “We have to end all mandates.”
The argument for a vaccine mandate for foreign travelers to the US may have made sense during the earlier phase of the pandemic. When the mandate was imposed in November 2021, it was a clear improvement over the international travel ban that had been in place since March 2020. While far from ideal, it was a policy that reflected the changing realities of the pandemic — and as recognizing the effectiveness of the vaccine against COVID and the importance of returning to something like pre-pandemic norms when it comes to the right of individuals to travel and associate freely.
Now, however, that mandate seems to make little sense in a world where COVID has evolved into less serious health threats and where other similar policies have been pushed aside. Last month, the vaccine mandate for members of the US military was dropped. Other provisions — such as those some cities briefly imposed on patrons of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues — are also long gone or never enforced because courts blocked them.
And whatever logic dictated placing an additional burden on foreign travelers at the beginning of the pandemic – when countries tried, but failed, to slow the spread of the virus – surely no longer applies. After COVID became a global disease, any restrictions on international travel made no more sense than imposing the same rules on people who cross from Virginia to Washington, DC every day.
As part of a statement released Tuesday, the White House pledged that the administration will “reexamine all relevant policies, including this one” when the current public health emergency declaration expires on May 11.
“Just as the establishment of this public health policy was guided by science, any termination or modification of this policy should be as well,” the White House said in a statement. “Voting for this bill undermines that critical principle.”
But what is that principle? That unvaccinated travelers from the UK somehow pose a greater risk to public health than unvaccinated Americans moving from state to state? There is no evidence for that. In fact, since the mandate applies only to air transport, the assumed principle is even more vague. A Canadian flying to the United States must be vaccinated against COVID to protect America, the White House actually says, but that exactly the same Canadian could drive across the border and no one would check his or her vaccination status.
There is no scientific principle supporting the CDC’s vaccine mandate for foreign travelers. If Biden isn’t going to do the obvious thing and end the term early, he should at least get out of the way and let Congress do it for him.