President Trump has touted his travel “bans” as early measures to stop non-U.S. citizens from entering the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet government data obtained by the Cato Institute show that travel declined nearly as quickly among U.S. citizens, noncitizens with less severe bans, and domestic travelers. Rather than early efforts to slow travel, Trump’s bans coincided with the existing trend. They may have sped the decline of total noncitizen international entries relative to domestic travel by at most two or three days.
Figure 1 compares the change in international air travel by non-U.S. citizens (those targeted by bans) to domestic air travel, as measured by Transportation Security Administration throughput minus international departures, from March 1 through April 7 (the last day in the international arrivals dataset that the government shared with Cato). During this time, the president imposed entry bans on most non‐citizen travel from Iran (3/3), Europe’s Schengen Area (3/14), Ireland and Britain (3/17), and nearly all new visa applicants worldwide (3/20).
Yet the difference between non-U.S. citizen international air entries and purely domestic air travel is minimal. The decline in noncitizen international entries surpassed 25 percent on March 9, while domestic travel reached that mark the next day. The difference for the 50 percent threshold was 3 days, but both reached 75 percent on the same day: March 19. It took domestic travel until March 25 to drop 90 percent below its prior level, compared to March 23 for noncitizen travel from abroad. By April 7, non-U.S. citizen entries had fallen 98 percent compared to 96 percent for domestic travel.
Figure 2 compares noncitizen travel depending on the severity of the travel restrictions for three categories of countries: 1) Europe’s Schengen Area plus the British Isles where the administration imposed the strictest restrictions: bans on entry (March 14 and 17, respectively) that included most existing visa holders and visa exempt noncitizen travelers; 2) countries where all noncitizens must have visas to travel and where visa issuances were suspended on March 20 (excluding China where an entry ban occurred on February 2), but where existing visa holders and visa exempt travel could continue; and 3) Visa Waiver Program countries not in Europe or the British Isles which were not subject to entry bans (more than 90 percent of the travel from there is visa exempt).
As Figure 2 shows, travel fell among all three groups by more than 95 percent: 97 percent for countries where a visa was required, 98 percent for countries where a visa was not required and there was no entry ban, and 99 percent for Europe and the British Isles where an entry ban was in effect. The most gradual decline was for countries where a visa was required, which makes sense because it was the last “ban” imposed, and it only applied to new visa applicants, not current visa holders. What’s more interesting is the comparison of Europe to the other Visa Waiver Program countries. The declines were similar and again just days apart, despite 90 percent of the travel from these other Visa Waiver Program countries being visa exempt.
Figure 3 shows U.S. inbound international air travel for U.S. citizens and noncitizens from various countries, outbound international travel, and domestic travel. The overall impression is that no matter how severe the restriction, everyone stopped traveling by late March. The entry bans on Europe and the British Isles preceded the decline in travel from other countries and domestically by just a few days. By April 7, no type of travel declined by less than 95 percent—whether it was subject to a U.S. travel restriction or not.
Americans and foreigners alike aren’t traveling for many reasons during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of these reasons may be governmental policies other than the Trump ban. Other countries have enacted restrictions on travel in or out. Stay at home orders may influence people to avoid air travel. But likely the most important reason is the most obvious: the virus. COVID-19 has spread and so has fear of it. People don’t want to contract the disease, so they aren’t traveling—even if the law allows them to.