The international-travel ritual I would very much like to have done for the last time

Staying up past midnight isn’t really part of my event routine these days, but I was determined to do that Tuesday night in Barcelona–not to enjoy any MWC nightlife, but so I could swirl a swab in each of nostrils while a stranger watched me do that via my phone’s camera.

I timed this quasi-exhibitionist performance to meet the Centers for Disease Control’s rule that air travelers to the United States provide a negative COVID-19 test administered no earlier than one day prior to travel. Because that’s one day, not 24 hours, my window to do this opened at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

And because I had packed a proctored version of Abbott’s BinaxNow antigen test$69.99 for a two-pack–I didn’t have to find a testing location open at that hour and could get this done in my Airbnb.

The experience felt slightly like I was recording a hostage video: After opening the Navica app this test employs, that app opened my phone’s browser to eMed’s site, which then asked for permission to open my phone’s camera so that my “guide” could walk me through the test, starting with me holding my passport before the camera and then keeping it in view.

You can imagine my relief at watching this test strip in the Abbott kit almost immediately show only one line and then stay that way, after which eMed e-mailed me a PDF that a Lufthansa check-in agent at BCN briefly inspected Thursday morning before printing my boarding pass.

Getting this negative result that quickly represented a major upgrade over the two other times I’ve had to get a COVID test to fly home, both of which took place when the CDC rule allowed a test three days before departure: a PCR test in Estonia last August that came back negative the next morning, and an antigen test in Portugal in November that only had me waiting an hour or so for an e-mail with a “Não detetado” PDF.

But every one of these tests also represented a waste of time. If requiring a negative test before boarding an international flight actually worked to slow the pandemic, every other country would make Americans do that before flying from the world’s COVID capital. But most don’t–I didn’t have to provide a negative test before flying to Spain through Germany a week ago.

Instead, it’s the U.S. government that imposed this requirement in the last days of the Trump administration last January. The pandemic subsequently hit never-before-seen peaks anyway, not because Americans with passports dared to use them but because too many of us still won’t get vaccinated. What this rule has done is inconvenience and worry travelers–and detain those unlucky enough to test positive overseas like Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson, who got to spend an extra week in a hotel room in Spain three months ago.

At the start of February, 29 airline, travel and business groups sent a letter to the White House asking the government to drop the testing requirement for vaccinated travelers. There are many times when trade assocations’ requests for regulatory relief deserve a skeptical reading, but this isn’t one of them. The CDC rule is a joke that was never funny, and it needs to go.


Lessons from transatlantic travel during the never-ending pandemic

Returning to Europe for the first time in close to two years reminded me of some aspects of EU life that had faded from my mind, like the endless series of GDPR-mandated privacy dialogs marring familiar news sites.

But my visit to Estonia on a sponsored press trip this week also exposed a newer difference between life here and on the other side of the Atlantic: how people are responding to the pandemic that’s now nearing its third year.

While I did not have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result to board my flight (I took a PCR test two days prior to departure anyway and got a negative result the evening prior), I didn’t take too many steps after landing in Frankfurt before being asked for those documents to get into a Lufthansa lounge.

In Estonia–where the positive-test rate is lower than here in Virginia, while the vaccination rate is also lower but rising rapidly–I had to present my vaccination card once again to check into the hotel in Tallinn.

I faced more documentation requests to get into restaurants, a museum and a government office building. I’d call it a papers-please ritual except the Europeans among me could display EU-spec digital certificates on their phones that could be verified with a scan of a QR code, while I was left showing my paper card or a photo of it. This left me feeling like a health-tech hick, especially when one official looked at that image and said something like “I’ll have to trust you.”

(I’m told there’s an effort to build out a digital-vaccination-certificate standard across U.S. states, with California already supporting it; yes, consider the story assignment received.)

Mask compliance, however, did not seem great in the few mostly-empty restaurants and bars I ducked into; I did not linger in any crowded indoor spaces unmasked because I felt like I was pushing my luck enough already.

(For the same reason, I bought a BinaxNow antigen test at a CVS this morning and got yet another negative result.)

I had to present a negative test to board my flight home Thursday morning. That itself got checked twice, once before I could get a boarding pass and again before the gate for my flight back to the States from Munich.

And then after a long day of travel, I returned to a United States in which most people never have to produce any sort of confirmation of vaccination or a recent negative test–and some people seem violently opposed to any such mandate, even if that rugged individualism in the face of a pandemic just might put them in the grave.