Skift Take

If airlines and travelers are counting on airport screenings and quarantines to be a effective counter-measures in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, the CDC said these tactics will "have less impact" when transmissions are widespread. Everything depends on effective vaccines.

President Trump didn’t impose bans on European travelers, including those from coronavirus-ravaged Italy, until mid-March. That, along with events such as Mardi Gras, and returning cruisers from nine Nile River cruises in February and early March, contributed to the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t specify that it was White House malfeasance that quickened the spread of coronavirus spread in the United States, but it’s clear from a timeline and charts that Skift culled from the federal agency’s May 1 report where a portion of the responsibility lies. [See the report embedded below.]

Commenting on the CDC report, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that while much of the coronavirus focus months ago was on travelers from China, where the infections began, travelers from Europe, including Italy, were walking freely through New York area airports unscreened.

Contrary to President Trump characterizing his partial China travel ban as a decisive move, Cuomo said the China partial travel ban may have been helpful, but the coronavirus that came to the United States from Europe was a different strain, and “the horse was already out of the barn in China.”

Some 70,000 flyers from China arrived in the United States in February, the report said. “However, during February, 139,305 travelers arrived from Italy and 1.74 million from all Schengen countries, where the outbreak was spreading widely and rapidly.”

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Another roughly 860,000 arrived from Europe in March. The president, of course, continually touts his early response to implement a China travel ban, but has not yet respond publicly to the CDC’s latest report on Europe.

Timeline of the Travel and Event-Related U.S. Coronavirus Spread


The United States got its first documented Covid-19 cases from travelers from China’s Hubei province, and their household members, seemingly in the state of Washington, in January and February. In late February, cases were detected in the U.S. among people who had no contact with the Hubei-related importation.

  • January 17: The CDC and U.S. Customs and Border Protection began passenger screening at select U.S. airports.
  • January 23: China locked down Wuhan and all of Hubei province, banning travel.
  • February 2: The U.S. implemented a travel ban on non-U.S. travelers from China. In February 1.74 million airline passengers arrived to the U.S. from the European Union, excluding the UK and Ireland.
  • February 11-March 5: Some 101 passengers returned to 18 U.S. states from nine Nile River cruises (including on the MS Asara), “nearly doubling the total number of known COVID-19 cases in the United States at that time,” the CDC stated.

  • From early February to mid-March international (China and Europe) and interstate travel led to multiple introductions of coronavirus in northern California.
  • Around one million people attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans in late February, and 175 people attended a Biogen conference in Boston, with both greatly ratcheting up U.S. infections.


  • Travelers from Europe and other regions from the United States are tied to the outbreak in the New York City area.
  • Mid-March: It was five weeks from the partial U.S. ban on travelers from China until President Trump banned non-U.S. travelers from Europe (March 13) and the UK and Ireland (March 16).
  • In March, flyers to the U.S. from Italy decreased 74 percent to 35,877, and from the Schengen countries dropped 50 percent to 862,432.

The 5-Week Gap Between Bans

So while there were reports from China in late December about coronavirus-driven deaths, and the United States banned non-U.S. travelers from China in early February, it took five more weeks until mid-March for President Trump to block European travel to the United States, which accelerated the introduction of coronavirus from New York to northern California.

To be sure, the CDC did not rank which factors contributed the greatest to the spread of coronavirus in the United States, and beyond flying and cruising, as well as large events, it cites workplaces, lack of social distancing, dense populations, and community spread from asymptomatic carriers, as all adding to the pandemic.

Among the crucial factors leading to coronavirus spread in New York, in addition to 1.6 million people commuting, with the majority using train and buses, the presence JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports, serving more than a million flyers weekly, contributed to the coronavirus crisis. New York, the report found,

More than 19,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus in New York, the country’s largest hotspot, to date.

Sobering Developments

The extent that both domestic and international travel — including from Europe and China — contributed  to the coronavirus pandemic is a sobering and soul-searching development for travel providers.

Until there are treatments, enhanced testing, and vaccines, there will likely be abundant travel restrictions in place around the world, dampening or elongating any recovery.

Some airports, such as Vienna’s, and airlines, such as Emirrates, are offering coronavirus testing as a way to facilitate flying and to avoid two-week quarantines.

But the CDC report cast doubt on those types of measures as long-term solutions.

Said the report: “Certain interventions that were critical in the early stages, such as quarantine and airport screening, might have less impact when transmission is widespread in the community. However, many elements of the mitigation strategies used during the acceleration phase will still be needed in later stages of the outbreak.”

Note: This story has been updated to include more of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s comments.

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Tags: airlines, airports, cdc, coronavirus, cruises, flights, travel bans, trump

Photo credit: A file photo of JFK International Airport in New York City. Travel from Europe to the U.S. accelerated coronavirus transmission. Bloomberg

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