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How Travel Restrictions Work

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One of the biggest lessons of the pandemic has been the success of travel restrictions at reducing its spread. And this is a moment when they have the potential to be particularly effective in the U.S., given the emergence of frightening coronavirus variants in other countries.

President Biden seems to realize this, and quickly reinstated some travel restrictions that President Donald Trump had lifted just before leaving office. But it’s not yet clear whether Biden is willing to impose the kind of strict rules that have worked best elsewhere. So far, he has not done so and instead chosen a middle ground between Trump’s approach and the approach with the best global track record.

Many of the places that have contained the virus have relied on travel restrictions. The list includes Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Canada’s four Atlantic provinces. At key points, they imposed severe restrictions on who could enter.

There is a crucial word in that sentence: severe. Travel bans work only when countries don’t give in to political temptation by allowing a lot of exceptions.

Barring citizens from other countries while freely allowing your own citizens to return, for example, is ineffectual. “Viruses don’t care what passport you carry,” my colleague Donald G. McNeil Jr., who’s been covering infectious diseases since the 1990s, told me.

Voluntary quarantines generally don’t work, either. People don’t adhere to them. Many take mild precautions and then describe themselves as “quarantining.” As Donald says: “For it to work, it has to be mandatory — and actually enforced. And not at home.”

Australia crushed the spread of the virus in the spring partly by ending its voluntary quarantine and requiring all arrivals, including Australian citizens, to spend two weeks in a hotel. The military then helped enforce the rules. China and some other Asian countries took similar steps. In eastern Canada, tough entry rules were “one of the most successful things we’ve done,” Dr. Susan Kirkland, a Nova Scotia official, has said.

Travel bans had such a big effect, Dr. Jared Baeten, a prominent epidemiologist, told me last year, that public-health experts should re-examine their longtime skepticism of them. “Travel,” he said, “is the hallmark of the spread of this virus around the world.”

Last year, the U.S. became a case study in the ineffectiveness of limited travel rules after Trump announced a ban on entry from China. But it wasn’t a real ban. It did not apply to U.S. citizens or their immediate family members, among others. Trump also did little to restrict entry from Europe. Despite his claims, the restrictions had little effect.

The Biden administration now risks a repeat.

Infectious variants of the virus are spreading in Brazil and South Africa, and they could be even more dangerous than a variant previously found in Britain, scientists say. In response, Biden is restricting entry from Europe, Brazil and South Africa, but the policy has multiple exceptions: Americans can return home from these places if they have recently tested negative, even though the test result may not be current.

The politics of travel bans are certainly thorny. Businesses worry about the economic impact (as The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright noted in a fascinating radio interview with Terry Gross). Progressives worry about stoking anti-immigration views. And it’s already too late to keep the variants out of the U.S. entirely.

Still, travel restrictions can save a lot of lives, even now. The U.S. is in a race — to vaccinate as many people as possible before they contract the virus. The new variants are the biggest new challenge in that race. “I am worried about these variants,” Dr. Vivek Murthy, the co-chair of Biden’s virus task force, said on the first episode of Ezra Klein’s Times podcast.

Biden’s travel restrictions will almost certainly have some impact, by keeping out some infected people. But Biden’s policy stops short of minimizing the virus’s spread.

Lives Lived: At a time when there were few Black astrophysicists, George Carruthers developed a telescope that went to the moon on Apollo 16, producing images of Earth’s outermost atmosphere, stars and galaxies. He died at 81.

This year is the 125th anniversary of the The New York Times Book Review. It started in 1896, originally called “Saturday Review of Books and Art.” The first issue — eight pages — included an article about Oscar Wilde’s experience in prison and another about department stores posing a threat to independent booksellers.

Most reviewers in the early days were anonymous and simply summarized the books. “There wasn’t as much opining,” said Tina Jordan, an editor whose new book about the Book Review’s history is due out in October. “There were exceptions, of course; a handful of books got absolutely demolished in our pages.” Some headlines: “Worthless Edition of a Poor Anthology,” “Two Pathetic Novels,” “Sundry Novels: Some Worth Reading and Others Not Worth the Printing.”

Earlier versions of the section were also less strict about conflicts of interest. “In the 1950s, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes reviewed each other,” a practice of mutual reviews that is no longer allowed, said Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review. “Neither was especially kind.”

You’ll find 25 old reviews by notable figures here. They include Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy, Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith and Eudora Welty — who worked briefly as an editor at the Book Review during World War II.

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was armadillo. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Kick back and relax (five letters).


Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. A hidden haiku in Bill Gates’s Times review of Yuval Noah Harari’s book: “What will give our lives / meaning in the decades and / centuries ahead?”

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is an interview with Fauci. On the latest “Sway,” Kara Swisher interviews Chris Best of the newsletter platform Substack.