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.