Lobbied By Impacted Industries, White House Killed COVID Travel Rule
The change highlights how, at key points, the Biden administration's pandemic policy aligned with big business.
This piece has been updated from its email version.
Last spring, the Biden administration eliminated a key COVID-19 protocol after it had been facing lobbying from affected industries, federal disclosures reveal.
In May, the White House announced it was lifting its requirement that international visitors to the United States provide proof of vaccination prior to travel. It was the final blow for a rule that had already been eased weeks earlier by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the lead-up to these decisions, the airline and tourism industries had been lobbying the administration and Congress, federal disclosures reveal.
The demise of the vaccine rule highlights how, at key points, the Biden administration’s pandemic policy decisions have aligned with the goals of big business.
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The COVID pandemic saw a significant drop in international travel to the U.S. According to data from the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines carried 60 percent fewer passengers in 2020 than the previous year. Although air travel has since recovered, pandemic restrictions emerged as a target for the airline and tourism industries as they interfered with business operations.
The vaccine requirement for international travelers was first imposed by the White House in November 2021 as a way of easing restrictions and opening up travel. Under the rule’s original formulation, visitors to the U.S. would be considered fully vaccinated and able to enter the country two weeks after their second dose of a two-dose vaccine or a single dose of a one-shot vaccine like the Johnson & Johnson jab.
Last April, however, the CDC eased the rule, allowing travelers to be counted as fully vaccinated if they had received a single dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine after the bivalent boosters became available. The CDC was not the only agency to make the change. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had also begun counting a single bivalent dose as full vaccination under their rules for healthcare workers.
At the time, the CDC justified its decision, noting that “some traveler vaccine records might not specify whether recent Moderna or Pfizer doses received were bivalent.” Two weeks later, however, the White House announced that it was lifting the rule altogether.
Federal lobbying disclosures reveal that Airlines for America (A4A), formerly known as the Air Transport Association of America, an industry trade association representing major North American airlines like Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United, had spent at least $2.9 million on lobbying between Q1 and Q2 2023—January to June—targeting both houses of Congress, the Executive Office of the President (EOP), and various federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the CDC. Among the various issues the group lobbied on was H.R. 185, a bill put forward by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), to eliminate the CDC’s vaccine requirement, which passed the House in February.
In 2022, A4A spent $4 million between Q2, Q3, and Q4, lobbying the administration, including EOP, CDC, HHS, and DOT, and both houses of Congress. One of the issues listed on the disclosures was Republican Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez‘s H.R. 7423, a bill to prohibit imposing certain COVID-19 face covering and vaccine mandates.
There are limitations to the disclosures. They do not, for example, indicate the position A4A took on either Massie’s or Gimenez’s bill or the White House vaccine rule generally. Nor do they they explain what issues were raised specific to each agency, or detail what meetings took place and when. A spokesperson for A4A would not speak on record.
In the past, however, the airlines have sought to roll back mitigation rules impacting travel—and their efforts have coincided with policy changes.
In December 2021, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian and A4A President and CEO Nicholas Calio sent separate letters to then-CDC Director Rochelle Walensky advocating a shorter isolation period for vaccinated individuals who got sick with COVID. Just days later, the CDC shortened its COVID isolation guidance from 10 days to 5 days.
“To address the potential impact of the current isolation policy effectively, we propose an isolation period of no more than 5 days from symptom onset for those who experience a breakthrough infection,” Calio wrote. “In turn, those individuals would be able to end isolation with an appropriate testing protocol.”
The policy change drew backlash on social media, including from public health experts. Dr. Lucky Tran, a science communicator based at Columbia University, warned that employers would misuse the new guidance to pressure sick workers back into workplaces.
“That's bad policy, no matter how much you claim you are ‘following the science,’” Tran wrote.
The airlines also sought to roll back the CDC’s pre-departure negative test requirement for travelers. In April 2022, Calio sent a letter to Health and HHS Xavier Becerra and Walensky requesting the rule be dropped along with the travel mask mandate. Roughly two months later, the CDC announced that it was rescinding the testing rule.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has now shifted to a new phase, due to the widespread uptake of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, the availability of effective therapeutics, and the accrual of high rates of vaccine- and infection-induced immunity at the population level in the United States,” the agency said.
Calio lauded the news in a statement, declaring the change would “help encourage and restore air travel to the United States, benefiting communities across the country that rely heavily on travel and tourism to support their local economies.”
“We are eager to welcome the millions of travelers who are ready to come to the U.S. for vacation, business and reunions with loved ones,” the statement read. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Administration to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of the traveling public and to ensure that air travel policies are guided by science.”
Asked about industry influence on the CDC’s decision-making process, Jasmine Reed, a spokesperson for the agency, told Important Context that “While CDC recognizes the value in open dialogue with all stakeholders, including industry, our public health recommendations and guidance is always driven by science and the best interests of the American people.”
In addition to the airlines, the tourism industry was also lobbying the administration ahead of the end of the vaccine requirement. Federal disclosures reveal that in Q1 and Q2, the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), an industry trade association, paid the lobby shop Klein/Johnson Group a total of $60,000 to lobby the executive office of the president on “Issues related to encouraging safe travel to and within the United States for both business and tourism.” As with A4A, the USTA disclosures provide a limited snapshot. They are not specific as to what issues were discussed and when those discussions took place.
When the White House lifted the foreign visitor vaccine requirement, the group’s head lauded the news.
“We have survey data we hear from travel buyers on the international side that there are many, many travelers interested in visiting the United States for whom this requirement was a burden,” USTA President and CEO Geoff Freeman told Forbes. “And they chose other markets because of it. We don’t think we can eliminate this requirement soon enough.”
The demise of the vaccine requirement and other travel-related COVID rules are not the only significant changes to the administration’s pandemic strategy made in the face of industry lobbying. In June 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limited its emergency standard for COVID to healthcare workers after the reviewing agency held meetings with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s foremost business lobby group. A leaked draft revealed that the original rule was meant to apply to all workers, calling the virus a “grave danger in every shared workplace.”
Despite promising on the campaign trail to “end” the pandemic, Biden’s time in office has been marked by a normalization of COVID—even as deadly variants like Delta and Omicron killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. With the administration’s focus heavily on vaccine rollout, other federal mitigation efforts and relief programs were allowed to lapse. In May, along with the end of the foreign visitor vaccine requirement, both the public health emergency for COVID and the national emergency came to an end.
While the economy has largely recovered, COVID remains a problem. Today, wastewater data indicates the country is in the midst of its second worst surge since the pandemic began thanks to the new variant, JN.1, which the CDC has warned may either be better at evading immune systems or more transmissible. The holiday season has brought with it a rise in hospitalizations—though deaths, a lagging indicator, have thus far not reflected the increase. Still, CDC numbers reveal that since late August, more than 24,000 Americans have died from the virus at an average of nearly 1,300 Americans per week.
The approved COVID vaccines provide high levels of protection against severe illness and death—as well as some protection against infection and even long COVID—and have contributed to lower death numbers than the U.S. suffered in earlier waves. But vaccination rates have remained stubbornly low thanks to widespread skepticism. To date, less than a third of Americans have gotten the new jab, prompting the CDC put out an urgent warning last month.
Update: A previous version of this piece noted that at the time of publication, the CDC weekly COVID death total for the week ending December 23, 2023, had dipped. We noted that the total COVID deaths for the preceding 19 weeks was over 23,000, at a weekly average of over 1,2000 deaths per week. On 1/5/2024, the number for the week of December 23 was increased, raising the total for the preceding 19 weeks and the weekly average. The new numbers are now reflected in the piece.