Loved ones reunited as U.S. borders open to 33 countries

‘FaceTime, pictures, that’s good, but it doesn’t make up for a real-life meeting’

By Irene Casado Sánchez, Caroline Ghisolfi and Natasha Maki Jessen-Petersen

Special to The Examiner

Marie-Odile Lemoine, 78, was stopped by security guards at a French airport on March 13, 2020, when the United States enforced a travel ban from Europe. Almost 19 months later, she landed at San Francisco International Airport.

Her niece Claire Towner, 32, kept checking the flight information boards. A charcuterie board, Champagne and the whole family were waiting for her aunt at home.

“How am I even going to recognize her after four years — and with the mask on?” Towner asked.

Claire Towner waits for her aunt, who bought the first flight out of France to the San Francisco International Airport. Towner had not seen her aunt since 2018. (Courtesy Natasha Maki Jessen-Petersen)

Claire Towner waits for her aunt, who bought the first flight out of France to the San Francisco International Airport. Towner had not seen her aunt since 2018. (Courtesy Natasha Maki Jessen-Petersen)

Lemoine is one of an estimated 741 million Europeans who have been blocked from entry into the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite a recent surge of infections in some European countries, including Germany, Greece and the Netherlands, on Nov. 8 the Biden administration followed through on its Oct. 15 announcement to lift travel restrictions for international visitors from 33 countries who can show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test within three days of departure (with children under 12 requiring only the latter). Twenty six countries off the travel ban are part of the European Union; the remaining are Brazil, China, India, Iran, Ireland, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

San Francisco International Airport, which was forced to cancel about 15% of its international flights when the ban was imposed, will see record levels of international passenger traffic, thanks to the new policies, Doug Yakel, a spokesperson at SFO said in a statement. The airport expects to reach 60-65% of pre-pandemic traffic in the coming months, surpassing summer peaks of just over 50%.

French citizen Adriane Sidoli, 30, had not seen her mother or grandmother since the travel ban was imposed. Agnes Rondeau was overcome with emotions the moment she spotted her daughter after her flight from Paris landed Monday afternoon.

“It’s been too long, but I’m so happy,” Rondeau said through tears.

For Sidoli, who paced outside the arrival doors for two hours, her eyes flicking back and forth from her phone to the exit, the moment was overwhelming. She hung onto her grandmother and then her mother, squeezing two years’ worth of hugs into the embrace.

“They’ve been waiting for this moment forever. Because I moved to the states one week before the lockdown,” Sidoli said.

According to U.S. Census data, Sidoli is one of over 18,000 Europeans without U.S. citizenship living in San Francisco who were unable to go home and then return to the United States under the travel ban.

Even though Sidoli’s family had planned to come to San Francisco for Christmas, Rondeau scoured flights for weeks, ready to visit as soon as the borders reopened.

“My mom couldn’t wait until Christmas. She was ready to book at any point, and once she heard it was the eighth, she was like, ‘OK, we’re on the first flight to San Francisco,’” Sidoli said.

The trip marks her mother’s and grandmother’s first time in the United States. Her grandmother wants to see the sea lions on Pier 39 and drink wine in Napa; more importantly, she wants to meet her granddaughter’s puppy.

Like Sidoli, Benjamin Grena, 33, had not seen his mother, Denise, since before the pandemic. He was holding his breath, waiting for her to land at the airport.

Denise purchased a ticket from Paris to San Francisco in July, a month after her granddaughter, Maxine, was born. But the borders remained closed and she had to reschedule. Coincidentally, she chose to schedule her second flight for Nov. 8, the day the travel ban ended.

“She wanted to meet her grandchild so badly. It’s been tough. FaceTime, you know, pictures and all that stuff, that’s good, but it doesn’t make up for a real-life meeting,” Grena said.

Grena and his wife were also unable to travel home to France because their work visas prevented re-entry into the United States.

When Denise arrived, she rushed to her son, holding his face in her hands.

“I’m excited to see my son because I’ve been waiting two years for this moment. And he has a baby — she’s four months (old). I haven’t seen her and I’m going to see her now,” she said, joy etched across her face.

Tom Tran’s in-laws also did not want to waste a second — booking the first flights out of Norway — to see their granddaughter, born just a month before the United States went into lockdown in March 2020. Tran eagerly awaited their arrival, a small Norwegian flag in hand.

While Grena and Tran waited for their families to be able to travel, others explored alternatives for entry.

Giovanni Paolo Di Vita and his wife, Marie France, managed to visit their 34-year-old daughter in Milan months before the ban was lifted. As an Italian citizen with a temporary American work visa, Di Vita was allowed to travel to Italy but not to return to the United States.

“So we found a loophole, which isn’t really a loophole since it’s legal,” said Di Vita in Italian. “In September, we quarantined in Mexico before re-entering the United States.”

Elizabeth Vallet, a geopolitics researcher at the University of Quebec in Montreal, said loopholes were mostly a tool of the wealthy during the pandemic.

“There’s no customs (if) you’ve got a private jet,” she said. “You’re rich. You’re white. You travel.”

Vallet believes this socioeconomic divide will continue to affect travelers for years to come.

“As you go down the social scale, you will have less and less mobility… and your body is carrying your passport. If you are fully vaccinated, then you can travel. But that also means at some point some (countries) will decide: Are you healthy enough to cross that border?”

Just as 9/11 resulted in permanent border security changes, Vallet fears pandemic-driven travel restrictions have set harmful precedents that will allow governments to abuse their newfound power to open and close borders under the pretext of security.

“So any country that feels a threat, will say OK, let’s close the border. And everybody is going to say, OK, I guess we did that during the pandemic,” Vallet said.

The travel ban not only separated families, it put love stories on hold.

Josefine Jönsson greets her boyfriend, Daniel, who arrived from Denmark at San Francisco International Airport on Nov. 8. (Courtesy Natasha Maki Jessen-Petersen)

Josefine Jönsson greets her boyfriend, Daniel, who arrived from Denmark at San Francisco International Airport on Nov. 8. (Courtesy Natasha Maki Jessen-Petersen)

Josefine Jönsson, 29, and her boyfriend, Daniel, who are both Danish, dated for only a month before she moved to California from Denmark to study. They’ve been booking and canceling tickets since October, hoping the ban would lift.

For Jönsson, the long distance did not feel like a hindrance. “If you only have communications, that’s a really beautiful way to love each other, you know.”

Caroline Ghisolfi, Irene Casado Sánchez and Natasha Maki Jessen-Petersen are graduate students in Stanford University’s MA journalism program. Ghisolfi has interned at the Associated Press, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Examiner. Sánchez spent seven years as a foreign correspondent based in Paris, freelancing for news media outlets such as CNN, Cadena SER and Mediapart. Jessen-Petersen spent five years with the United Nations in Copenhagen after various NGO experiences and a six-month stint as a journalist.

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