By Marguerite Cleveland
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on and it is summer vacation time thoughts are turning towards travel. Questions abound. Is it safe to visit? What do I need to do differently when traveling? When will my passport be processed? Can I travel internationally? The travel situation due to COVID-19 is ever changing but here is what we do know:
On August 6, 2020, the Department of State lifted the worldwide Global Level 4 Health Advisory which advised U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. It was put in place with the CDC who initiated their own global health warning.
According to Carl C. Risch, Assistant Secretary Bureau of Consular Affairs, the State Department has returned to their previous system of travel advice for each country on a level of 1 to 4 based on the specific conditions in each country. The CDC has also lifted their Level 3 Global COVID-19 Pandemic Notice. The change reflects that conditions in some countries are improving and some are deteriorating.
U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories are based on assessment of conditions on the ground and includes risk indicators other than just COVID-19 such as civil unrest and natural disasters. The advisories are updated every day. Currently the only two countries in the world at a Level 1: (Exercise Normal Precautions) are Macau and Taiwan. Risch advised that global conditions remain highly dynamic, and the State Department continues to recommend that U.S. citizens exercise caution when traveling abroad due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.
The backlog on passports is finally beginning to break free. Unlike some government positions those processing passports cannot work at home due to security issues with personal documents such as birth certificates and this contributed to the backlog. In June the State Department began a phased reopening as employees began returning to work. Since that time pending applications have dropped from 1.8 million to around 1 million. Typically, there are normally around 1 million applications pending so the processing time has improved.
At this time, you cannot get an expedited passport unless you have a life or death emergency and must travel outside the country within 3 business days. Call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 during business hours Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time or after hours call 202-647-4000. You must provide supporting documents with your application such as a death certificate or signed letter from a hospital or medical professional and proof of travel such as a reservation or ticket.
Tip – Allow 7 – 10 days after you submitted a passport application or renewal to check the status. Go to the Online Passport Status System to sign up for email notifications. You will receive 3 emails, first when it is in process, second once it is approved, and third once it is mailed. This is an easy way to help you keep track. I submitted a renewal in February and received it back in July.
Traveling outside of the country during the COVID-19 crises or other times of unrest can be nerve wracking. One way to make sure you receive information is to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This is a free service offered by the State Department which allows you to enroll your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. You can also do this if you are living abroad. The benefits are you can receive up to date information on safety conditions at your destination and the U.S. Embassy can contact you if there is an emergency such as a natural disaster etc. It can also help your family reach you in case of an emergency.
In addition to the State Department you should also check the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This link provides information on travel during the pandemic. The CDC currently has a No Sail Order for all cruise ships through September, 2020. There is also information on how to access State Health Departments for information on restrictions for travel to other states. It is a confusing mess and constantly changing so it is important to check when planning a trip and then again before you leave. Some states such as Hawaii have a 14-day quarantine in effect or provide the results of a recently taken negative COVID-19 test. Most people don’t take a 14-day vacation so you could fly to Hawaii and not be able to leave your quarters for your entire stay.
Should you travel? Each family needs to make that decision for themselves and weigh the risk factors. Be responsible and don’t travel if you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Travel with hand sanitizer, masks and sanitizing wipes. Monitor the situation as conditions with this pandemic are constantly changing.