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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Facts on Trump’s Travel Restrictions

President Donald Trump has made a number of misleading statements about his decision on Jan. 31 to impose travel restrictions related to the novel coronavirus epidemic.

  • Trump has referred to the travel restrictions as a “travel ban.” There isn’t an outright ban, as there are exceptions, including for Americans and their family members.
  • Trump said he was “bold” in imposing travel restrictions even though “everybody said, it’s too early, it’s too soon” and “a lot of people that work on this stuff almost exclusively” told him “don’t do it.” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the decision stemmed from “the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”
  • Trump said Democrats “loudly criticized and protested” his announced travel restrictions, and that they “called me a racist because I made that decision.” Trump is overstating Democratic opposition. None of the party’s congressional leaders and none of the Democratic candidates running for president have directly criticized that decision, though at least two Democrats have.
  • Trump said the travel restrictions “saved a lot of lives” and reduced U.S. COVID-19 cases to “a very small number.” But experts say there isn’t enough data to make that determination. A study in the journal Science found the various travel limitations across the globe initially helped to slow the spread, but the number of cases worldwide rose anyway because the virus had already begun traveling undetected internationally.

Azar declared a public health emergency for the novel coronavirus on Jan. 31, and announced the travel restrictions to and from China, effective Feb. 2. On Feb. 29, Trump expanded those travel restrictions to Iran. Trump has repeatedly boasted that his decision to impose the travel restrictions was bold and worked. But his rhetoric has sometimes stretched the facts.

A Travel ‘Ban’?

For starters, health experts say Trump was wrong to refer to the travel restrictions as a “travel ban,” as he did in a telephone interview on March 4 with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. During a town hall on March 5, Trump said he “closed down the borders to China and to other areas that are very badly affected.” That’s not accurate.

As Azar explained when he announced the travel restrictions on Jan. 31, the policy prohibits non-U.S. citizens, other than the immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled to China within the last two weeks from entering the U.S.

At a House subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus on Feb. 5, Ron Klain, White House Ebola response coordinator under the Obama administration, took issue with the characterization of the travel restrictions as a travel “ban.”

“We don’t have a travel ban,” Klain said. “We have a travel Band-Aid right now. First, before it was imposed, 300,000 people came here from China in the previous month. So, the horse is out of the barn.”

“There’s no restriction on Americans going back and forth,” Klain said. “There are warnings. People should abide by those warnings. But today, 30 planes will land in Los Angeles that either originated in Beijing or came here on one-stops, 30 in San Francisco, 25 in New York City. Okay? So, unless we think that the color of the passport someone carries is a meaningful public health restriction, we have not placed a meaningful public health restriction.”

Indeed, on Jan. 24, a week before the travel restrictions, the CDC confirmed two cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. from people who had returned from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began.

Furthermore, Klain said, the import of goods from China is exempt from the travel restrictions, “and, of course, the people who fly the planes and drive the boats that bring those goods from China. We couldn’t ban that activity. We vitally need that. Ninety percent of the antibiotics in this country come from China. All kinds of vital medical supplies … we will use to treat people. So, travel bans … that’s not what we’re imposing, that’s not what exists.”

As part of the travel restrictions, Azar announced that any U.S. citizen returning to the U.S. who had been in Hubei Province in China in the previous 14 days would be subject to mandatory quarantine and health screening. U.S. citizens returning from mainland China outside Hubei Province were ordered to undergo health screenings and “up to 14 days of monitored self-quarantine to ensure they’ve not contracted the virus and do not pose a public health risk,” Azar said.

At the time the restrictions were announced, there were only six confirmed cases of the novel virus in the U.S. The outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019, has now spread to more than 70 countries, including the U.S. According to a Johns Hopkins University case tracker and a New York Times database, as of March 6more than 250 people in the U.S. have been infected with the new disease, known as COVID-19, and at least 14 have died.

Did Trump Buck the Experts?

Trump has repeatedly said that his decision to impose the travel restrictions on Jan. 31 was made despite objections from most of the experts on containing the spread of infectious disease.

“But we closed those borders very early, against the advice of a lot of professionals, and we turned out to be right. I took a lot of heat for that,” Trump said on March 4.

Asked by Hannity the same day about his rationale at the time he made the decision, Trump said, “I would say everybody said, it’s too early, it’s too soon, and good people, brilliant people, in many ways, doctors and lawyers and, frankly, a lot of people that work on this stuff almost exclusively. And they said, don’t do it.”

Trump repeated this claim at his town hall in Scranton on March 5, saying that as soon as he heard that China had a problem with the coronavirus, he asked how many people the U.S. had coming in from China. “Nobody but me asked that question,” Trump said. Trump added that his decision to impose the travel restrictions was made “against the advice of almost everybody.”

Everybody? Not according to Azar, who said it was the “uniform” recommendation of experts in his department.

“The travel restrictions that we put in place in consultation with the president were very measured and incremental,” Azar told reporters on Feb. 7. “These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”

The World Health Organization cautioned against the overuse of travel restrictions, but stopped short of saying that Trump’s decision in the U.S.  — or anyone else’s in other countries — was inappropriate.

“[W]e reiterate our call to all countries not to impose restrictions inconsistent with the International Health Regulations,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told its executive board. “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit. So far, 22 countries have reported such restrictions to WHO. Where such measures have been implemented, we urge that they are short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and are reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves.”

As we said, three experts called by Democrats at a House subcommittee hearing on Feb. 5 questioned the decision. Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was one of them.

Nuzzo, Feb. 5: [W]e need to seriously reexamine the current policy of banning travel from China and quarantining returning travelers. All of the evidence we have indicates that travel restrictions and quarantines directed at individual countries are unlikely to keep the virus out of our borders. These measures may exacerbate the epidemic’s social and economic tolls and can make us less safe. Simply put, this virus is spreading too quickly and too silently, and our surveillance is too limited for us to truly know which countries have active transmission and which don’t. The virus could enter the U.S. from other parts of the world not on our restricted list, and it may already be circulating here.

The U.S. was a target of travel bans and quarantines during the 2009 flu pandemic. It didn’t work to stop the spread, and it hurt our country. I am concerned that by our singling out China for travel bans, we are effectively penalizing it for reporting cases. This may diminish its willingness to further share data and chill other countries’ willingness to be transparent about their own outbreaks. Travel bans and quarantines will make us less safe if they divert attention and resources from higher priority disease mitigation approaches that we know are needed to respond to cases within the United States.

… We often see, when we have emerging disease outbreaks, our first instinct is to try to lock down travel to prevent the introduction of virus to our country. And that is a completely understandable instinct. I have never seen instances in which that has worked when we are talking about a virus at this scale.

Respiratory viruses like this one, unlike others–they just move quickly. They are hard to spot because they look like many other diseases. It’s very difficult to interrupt them at borders. You would need to have complete surveillance in order to do that. And we simply don’t have that.

During the hearing, Dr. Jennifer Bouey, chair of China policy studies at the Rand Corporation, agreed saying that the policy to restrict travel “doesn’t help that much in this–the current situation.”

But according to Paul Offit, chair of vaccinology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, those kinds of opinions were in the minority at the time the president made his decision.

“I don’t know anyone who thought the travel restrictions were a bad idea early on,” Offit told us in a phone interview.

When a virus like that is restricted to one location, as it appeared to be early on, travel restrictions can lessen the odds of it spreading to this country, Offit said. Over time, however, and as cases began to be identified in the U.S., travel restrictions make much less of a difference, he said.

Epidemiologists and former U.S. health officials told Time that the initial travel restrictions were valid and “likely helped to slow the spread of the virus. The problem, they say, is that once it was clear that the virus was within our borders officials did not pivot quickly enough to changing circumstances.”

Democratic Criticism

Trump has repeatedly claimed that Democrats have “loudly criticized and protested” his imposition of the travel restrictions, and have called the decision “racist.” But while leading Democrats have been outspoken in their criticism of the president’s overall response to the epidemic, very few have criticized his decision to impose limited travel restrictions.

“I took a lot of heat,” Trump said during a Feb. 27 press conference. “I mean, some people called me racist because I made a decision so early. And we had never done that as a country before, let alone early. So it was a, you know, bold decision. It turned out to be a good decision. But I was criticized by the Democrats. They called me a racist because I made that decision, if you can believe that one.”

At a rally in South Carolina the following day, Trump said Democrats “loudly criticized and protested” his decision.

“But, anyway — but we’ve done an incredible job because we closed early,” Trump said in a meeting with African American leaders on Feb. 28. “And actually, the Democrats said I was a racist. Not from black-people standpoint, but from Asian-people standpoint, from Chinese-people standpoint. They said I was a racist because I closed our country to people coming in from certain areas. They called me a racist.”

We reached out to the Trump campaign and asked for names, but we did not get a response. We scoured news clips and could find only a couple instances of elected Democrats criticizing the president’s action to restrict travel.

In the House subcommittee hearing on Feb. 5 that we referenced earlier, several witnesses called by the Democrats expressed concerns about the travel restrictions and warned they could do more harm than good.

And at least one Democrat agreed.

“The United States and other countries around the world have put in place unprecedented travel restrictions in response to the virus,” said Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel. “These measures have not proven to improve public health outcomes, rather they tend to cause economic harm and to stoke racist and discriminatory responses to this epidemic.”

A day earlier, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, who presided over the hearing, told Politico, “In our response we can’t create prejudices and harbor anxieties toward one population.” Bera told Politico the decision to impose travel restrictions “probably doesn’t make sense” given that the outbreak had already spread to several other countries by that point. “At this juncture, it’s going to be very hard to contain the virus,” Bera said.

But the Democratic leaders in Congress have simply not mentioned Trump’s travel restrictions.

In a Feb. 25 tweet, Trump claimed that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “didn’t like my early travel closings.” Trump’s comment appears to be based on a fabricated tweet that circulated widely on Facebook.

Schumer has been critical of the Trump administration’s response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. But he hasn’t mentioned the travel restrictions in that criticism.

In Trump’s Fox News interview on March 4, host Sean Hannity said former vice president and current Democratic challenger Joe Biden “accused the president of being xenophobic, while he was trying to protect the health of the American people.”

On the day Trump imposed the travel restrictions, Biden did criticize Trump for his “record of hysteria and xenophobia,” but it is unclear whether Biden was referring to Trump’s travel restrictions, or Trump’s overall qualifications to deal with the epidemic.

“We have right now a crisis with the coronavirus, emanating from China,” Biden said on Jan. 31 at a campaign event in Iowa. “A national emergency worldwide alerts. The American people need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it, that he is going to act rationally about it. In moments like this, this is where the credibility of the president is most needed, as he explains what we should and should not do. This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.”

In an op-ed published several days prior in USA Today, Biden similarly argued: “The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president.” Biden wrote that he recalled “how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma during the 2014 Ebola epidemic.” Trump, Biden wrote, “railed against the evidence-based response our administration put in place — which quelled the crisis and saved hundreds of thousands of lives — in favor of reactionary travel bans that would only have made things worse.”

Although Democratic leaders and Democratic presidential candidates have been highly critical of Trump’s response to the coronavirus, we couldn’t find any examples of them directly and clearly criticizing the travel restrictions.

In a Feb. 4 letter to Trump, Democratic Reps. Nita Lowey, chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Rose DeLauro, chair of one of the subcommittees, wrote that they “strongly support” the president’s decision to declare a public health emergency in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, and they specifically cited the administration’s actions to impose “significant travel restrictions.”

Have Travel Restrictions ‘Saved a Lot of Lives’?

Trump said his “bold” decision has since been vindicated, that it has “saved a lot of lives” and that because of his decision “that’s why we have a very small number of people that we have to really worry about.”

At a press conference on Feb. 29 attended by Trump, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised “the original decision that was made by the president” to impose travel restrictions to and from China.

“We prevented travel from China to the United States,” said Fauci, who has worked for multiple administrations. “If we had not done that, we would have had many, many more cases right here that we would have to be dealing with.”

But not everyone agrees.

Nuzzo, the senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said there’s no evidence, at least, that the travel restrictions have saved lives or reduced the number of cases in the U.S.

“We have not seen any evidence that shows the travel restrictions stopped or slowed down transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19,” Nuzzo told us via email. “It is possible that it did, but there is no evidence to show this. Rather there are a number of reasons to believe that this may very well not be the case.”

Chiefly, she said, that’s because “we weren’t seriously looking for cases in the US.”

“If you had mild infection, you were not tested,” Nuzzo said. “If you had viral pneumonia not requiring oxygen but had not been to Wuhan, you wouldn’t have been tested.”

“Prior to the US travel restrictions, China began suspending outbound flights,” Nuzzo said. “Airlines also began canceling flights due to low travel volume. Then, the US implemented travel restrictions, which further reduced travel from China. The exception was Americans who were returning home from China. These folks were subject to quarantine upon return. A number of cases were found among these individuals. If you only test travelers from China and you greatly reduce the number of travelers coming from China, then you would be likely to not find many cases.

“But it doesn’t mean the virus hadn’t entered the US prior to travel restrictions,” Nuzzo said, as data now suggests occurred in Washington state.

Also, she said other countries, including Japan, Singapore and Korea, had a significant number of coronavirus cases, but they weren’t subject to travel restrictions. The U.S. “would likely not have picked it up” if travelers coming to the U.S. from those countries “because we weren’t using these other countries as criteria for testing.”

A modeling study published in Science magazine on March 6, “The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,” concluded that, “In areas affected by the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), travel restrictions will only modestly impact the spread of the outbreak,” according to a press release for the study.

“Based on the study’s results, the authors say the greatest benefit to mitigating the epidemic will come from public health interventions and behavioral changes that achieve a considerable reduction in the disease transmissibility – factors like early detection, isolation, and handwashing,” according to the press release.

The authors concluded that travel restrictions introduced by the Chinese government in Wuhan in Jan. 23  and the halting of airline flights to and from China starting in early February at first slowed the spread of the disease to the rest of the world. Even still, a large number of individuals exposed to the virus had been traveling internationally without being detected and, the authors note, the number of imported cases around the world went up in a matter of weeks.

“Moving forward we expect that travel restrictions to COVID-19 affected areas will have modest effects, and that transmission-reduction interventions will provide the greatest benefit to mitigate the epidemic,” the authors wrote.