The spread of COVID-19 has caused organizations and individual travelers to take significant precautions to stay safe. However, some government precautionary measures have created further concerns beyond the health of the traveler. Each country has its own response to the virus, with some much more stringent than others. Due to the fluidity of the situation, the following advice is not comprehensive; however, each U.S. Embassy and Consulate is maintaining an updated list of country-specific COVID-19 security concerns on its website.
The most common risk private-sector security managers are dealing with in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak are the constantly changing government-issued travel restrictions. When the outbreak started in China’s Hubei province, some countries banned travelers form the province, while others including the U.S. banned travel from the entire country. The mix of different types and levels of restrictions has greatly expanded as the virus has spread across the globe.
U.S. Travel Bans and Restrictions
The United States has instituted travel restrictions based solely on the location from which the traveler is coming or to which they have traveled in the past 14 days. Relevant authorities gather this information through airline tickets and self-reporting. The ethnicity or nationality of a traveler is irrelevant. The U.S. has only instituted complete travel bans for travelers coming from China and Iran. Travelers who have been in either country in the past 14 days are not allowed to enter the U.S. unless they are U.S. citizens, in which case face a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Airports in South Korea and Italy screen passengers headed to the U.S. for fever. If the passenger’s temperature is 99.5F or above, airline staff will not allow the traveler to board the plane.
Travel Restrictions and Unintended Consequences
When a government implements a travel ban or restriction and commercial airlines reduce flights, it can be very difficult to get in and out of a country. Authorities may block travelers at airports or ports of entry, or quarantine travelers upon arrival depending on their point of departure (including layover and transit points). In addition to travel issues, travel bans and restrictions can create shortages of food and supplies. For example, when Hubei province was originally under quarantine, there was a shortage of food due to the interruption of transit and production lines.
Travel restrictions are changing frequently. It is important to check entire itineraries and all transit countries before departure to ensure it is still legal to pass from one country to the next. When assessing the security situation for either travel or operations, consider the effects of travel restrictions to and from your country of operation. Assess the effects of the travel restrictions on necessary items such as groceries or medical evacuation (medevac) flights as well.
U.S. travel advisories are strictly advice, and do not have legal bearing. There is no U.S. law against traveling to any country due to coronavirus.
COVID-19 Related Travel Advisory Decision Points
When the State Department increases the level for travel advisories due to COVID-19, it has usually been because of the host government response to the virus, rather than the presence of the virus itself. Decision points such as access to food, healthcare, and medevac, freedom of movement, and school closures influence the State Department’s decision to raise an advisory.
For example, the Department raised its travel advisory level for Mongolia from 1 to 3, and authorized departure for Embassy staff, despite a lack of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country. However, Mongolian government restricted the operation of 75% of flights due to its restrictions on flights to neighboring countries such as China and Korea, and closed all land borders as well as interprovincial travel; this severely restricted the ability of those inside Mongolia to leave the country, a major decision point for the U.S. Government and private-sector organizations alike. OSAC members also reported food shortages in Mongolia as a further decision points for their protocols.
U.S. COVID-Related Travel Advisories and Drawdowns
The State Department has given U.S. travelers the following advice due to the coronavirus through its increased Travel Advisory levels, and drawn down staff from several affected diplomatic posts:
The State Department has issued a Global Level 3 Health Advisory, indicating travelers should reconsider travel anywhere in the world at this time. Additionally, the State Department has authorized the departure from any Embassy or Consulate of U.S. personnel and family members medically determined to be at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19.. Additionally, the following locations have Level 4 Travel Advisories and are subject to a State Department-ordered departure (OD) specifically due to COVID-19: China , Iran , and parts of South Korea and Italy where the outbreak has been the worst.
Many countries are screening travelers in entry and exit points from affected areas. Even if there are no travel bans or restrictions interfering with your travel plans, the airport may have screening centers for passengers either at arrival or departure points. These screening points will test travelers for fever. If the traveler has a fever, screening personnel will stop the traveler from continuing. Authorities will likely test any passengers with a fever for COVID-19; any passengers who test positive must stay in quarantine for 14 days.
Quarantine for COVID-19 is 14 days. Quarantines come in three forms. The first is a restriction on people movement in a certain area. When Chinese authorities first restricted movement to/from the City of Hubei after the initial outbreak, they allowed one person to leave each household once a week to get necessary supplies. China implemented variations on these restrictions throughout the country in subsequent weeks, as did Italy in so-called “Red Zones;” Japan could follow suit. However, in some countries, such as South Korea, these kind of lockdown quarantines are illegal. Sick people can leave their houses to go to a hospital for treatment, but other movement is off limits. In the case of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the State Department was able to evacuate U.S. citizens caught in the lockdown. This was an unusual situation; typically, U.S. citizens must follow local laws.
The second type of quarantine is destination-imposed. When travelers returning from Wuhan first arrived in the U.S., they quarantined at an Air Force base in San Diego for two weeks. In some countries, when travelers do not pass a screening, they remain in quarantine at dedicated quarantine sites, at their own hotel, or in a hospital.
The third and most common form of quarantine for COVID-19 is self-quarantine. Authorities in the United States and many other countries ask patients sick with the coronavirus to self-quarantine. In addition, many countries ask travelers to self-quarantine upon arrival depending on their point of departure, regardless of their health. In a situation such as Israel’s, a traveler non-resident in Israel must self-quarantine at a hotel. People in self-quarantine should only leave their house or hotel room if they need medical care or basic supplies they cannot have delivered. If they do leave, they should wear a N95 respirator mask fitted properly to prevent the spread of germs, use hand sanitizer, and refrain from touching their face. If leaving the house for medical care, be sure to call ahead and inform healthcare providers that you tested positive for the coronavirus or that you recently traveled to an area where it was prevalent.
If a U.S. citizen is in a country with subpar medical care and contracts a critical case of the coronavirus, they can most likely fly back to one of three evacuation centers in the United States if they have adequate medevac insurance. Approximately 80% of cases are mild and do not require medical care. Of the 20% of cases that require medical care, only a small percentage are critical.
The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Departments webpage on insurance overseas. However, be sure that your medevac provider does not truncate coverage due to pandemic. Typically, insurance providers cover travel incidents, but are less likely to cover travel to a place with a known danger.
Before assuming you can medevac a critical care employee back to the U.S., consider the following:
- Is the traveler a U.S. citizen? If the traveler is not a U.S. citizen, but has contracted a critical case of COVID-19, it is unlikely the U.S. will allow them entry in to the country.
- In what country is the person sick located? Some countries, such as Italy, are keeping all patients in Italy under quarantine. However, in a country with less developed medical care, it is more likely that they could fly back in to the U.S. For example, several hundred people flew out of Wuhan, but the patients aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan were not allowed back in to the U.S. for a while.
- If you are responsible for a traveler in this situation, reach out to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and contact the American Citizen Services (ACS) office. Find ACS contact information on every U.S. embassy or consulate website, as well as every OSAC Crime & Safety Report.
For additional information on the security environment in the Asia-Pacific region, contact OSAC’s Asia-Pacific team, and consider the following resources.