National News

As Pandemic Grows, U.S. Warns Americans Not to Travel Abroad

Posted March 19, 2020 9:15 p.m. EDT
Updated March 19, 2020 9:19 p.m. EDT

Casey DeSimone at her home in New Paltz, N.Y., where she self-quarantined for 14 days after returning from studying in Italy, March 18, 2020. Americans returning from Italy and Spain say border control officials didn’t screen them or tell them to isolate themselves. (Lauren Lancaster/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The State Department announced on Thursday that Americans should not travel outside the country, and that citizens abroad should either return home or stay in place as the coronavirus pandemic grows.

The department raised its global health advisory to Level 4, or “do not travel,” which is the highest warning, usually reserved for nations that are war zones or facing serious disruptions such as political unrest or natural disasters.

The announcement is a recommendation, not a requirement. Millions of Americans are still overseas, and many are likely to opt to remain in place.

“If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite time frame,” the advisory said.

Some tourists or American citizens without long-term living arrangements or support networks abroad have been trying to get back to the United States, but have found that difficult because of border closings or flight cancellations and other transportation shutdowns. For example, American students trapped in Peru because of new travel restrictions imposed by the government there have been pleading with American officials to get them back to the United States.

President Donald Trump, asked during a briefing on Thursday about Americans stranded abroad and trying to re-enter the United States, said that the administration was working with the military to get some of them home.

This winter, the State Department used five charter flights sent from the United States to evacuate American citizens from Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak, and two to bring back Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers from Japan. Currently, the government has no plans to run similar evacuation flights elsewhere.

American diplomats who have returned to the United States from countries where large outbreaks have occurred have done so mostly on commercial flights.

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement Thursday calling for the State Department to coordinate with the Defense Department to activate a program called the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to charter commercial aircraft to evacuate Americans stranded abroad.

“If there ever was a need to increase our nation’s aircraft capability during a national crisis, this is it,” he said.

Some other countries have already issued travel advisories telling their citizens to return home or not to go abroad. Many European nations did that as the pandemic has raged across the continent. Canada did so last Friday, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in a 14-day period of self-quarantine because his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Canada and many other countries have also closed borders to nonessential traffic in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

Also Thursday, U.S. military officials announced they would halt deployments into Iraq for at least the next 14 days. The decision means some of the more than 5,000 American troops will have to stay in Iraq longer than expected. The move follows similar decisions by commanders in Afghanistan as the Pentagon wrestles with the spread of the coronavirus.

The change comes as American troops in Iraq contend with a series of rocket attacks launched by Iranian-linked militias and as the U.S.-led coalition there closes several smaller bases throughout the country. A volley of rockets this month killed two American service members and one British service member, and the U.S. military then carried out airstrikes against Iraqis in reprisal.

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