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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump, Biden Spin China Travel Restrictions


Both President Donald Trump and leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden are spinning the facts on the administration’s coronavirus travel restrictions for those who had been in China.

Trump has repeatedly boasted, as he did on April 4, that “I stopped people from China very early — very, very early — from coming into our country.” On April 1, Trump said that “banning dangerous foreign travel that threatens the health of our people” was one of the actions his administration took that was “far earlier than anyone would have thought and way ahead of anybody else.”

On ABC’s “This Week” on April 5, Biden said “45 nations had already moved” to restrict travel from China “before the president moved.” Said Biden, “We started off awfully slow.”

The U.S. did not act “way ahead of anybody else” in imposing travel restrictions from China, as Trump alleges, nor was it late getting into the act compared with other countries around the world, as Biden says.

ThinkGlobalHealth, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations, has been tracking the travel restrictions on China due to COVID-19. Its country-by-country analysis of the date and type of travel restrictions shows that in the days after the World Health Organization on Jan. 30 declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, 36 countries imposed travel restrictions, including the U.S., by Feb. 2.

“What this data shows is that the United States was neither behind nor ahead of the curve in terms of imposing travel restrictions against China,” a co-author of the tracker, Samantha Kiernan, a research associate on global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations, told us via email.

Dueling Narratives

A day after the WHO decision, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency for the U.S. for the novel coronavirus and announced travel restrictions to and from China, effective Feb. 2. The policy prohibited 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.

As we have written, Trump was wrong to call the policy a “travel ban” or to claim that he “closed up” all travel between the countries. There were exceptions, including for Americans and their family members and for trade. Trump also has repeatedly and misleadingly cast his decision to impose the travel restrictions as a “bold” move made “against the advice of almost everybody.” Azar said the decision stemmed from “the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”

Trump has repeatedly claimed that his decision to impose the travel restrictions on China “had Biden calling me xenophobic” and “racist.”

On the day the White House announced the travel restrictions, Biden did say at a campaign event in Iowa that as the pandemic unfolds, Americans “need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it, that he is going to act rationally about it.” He added, “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.”

The Biden campaign says Biden’s “reference to xenophobia was about Trump’s long record of scapegoating others at a time when the virus was emerging from China,” and that he was not talking about the travel ban.

On April 3, Biden’s campaign said Biden supported Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions on China.

“Joe Biden supports travel bans that are guided by medical experts, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told CNN. “Science supported this ban, therefore he did too.”

In a coronavirus task force press briefing on April 4, Trump asked if people had seen the “breaking news” that Biden “agreed that [Trump] was correct when I stopped people from China very early — very, very early — from coming into our country.”

On ABC’s “This Week” on April 5, Biden responded that while he agreed with the travel restrictions on China, he didn’t think the president acted with enough “urgency.”

Biden, April 5: You got to go faster than slower. And we started off awfully slow. He indicated that I complimented him on — on dealing with China. Well, you know, 45 nations had already moved to keep — block China’s personnel from being able to come to the United States before the president moved. So, it’s just — it’s about pace. It’s about — it’s about the urgency. And I don’t think there’s been enough of it, urgency.

According to Kiernan, co-creator of the ThinkGlobalHealth tracker on travel restrictions on China, 46 countries and territories (Macau and Hong Kong) imposed travel restrictions on China that came into effect before the United States’ restrictions did. (Although the U.S. announced its travel restrictions on Jan. 31, they did not go into effect until Feb. 2.) Twelve other countries’ travel restrictions against China came into effect on Feb. 2, the same day as the U.S.

Most of those countries’ decisions came in the days immediately after the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, Kiernan said.

“To be fair, the United States was one of the first Western countries to impose any kind of formal travel restriction against China,” Kiernan told us. “With the exceptions of the Czech Republic (suspended visas seven days after U.S. implemented restrictions) and Italy (suspended flights two days before U.S. implemented restrictions), the EU did not impose travel restrictions against China specifically. Australia imposed its entry ban on travelers from China, which was quite similar to the United States’, one day before the United States acted. New Zealand and Israel imposed their travel bans on the same day as the United States.”

In general, she said, the earliest countries to impose travel restrictions against China were Asian and Pacific countries.

“The Marshall Islands, for instance, imposed the earliest travel ban against China on January 24,” Kiernan said. “North Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Macau, Kazakhstan, Micronesia, Laos, Malaysia, etc. all imposed some form of travel restriction against China in January as well. A few African nations imposed travel restrictions against China in January as well, such as Mauritius and Seychelles.”

“Taking this all together, what this data shows is that the United States was neither behind nor ahead of the curve in terms of imposing travel restrictions against China,” Kiernan said.

The United States announced its restrictions the day after the WHO declared a public health emergency, “and those restrictions came into effect two days later. However, to say the United States was one of the first countries to impose an entry ban on travelers from China would be incorrect,” she said. “By my count, roughly twenty countries and territories (Hong Kong) imposed entry bans similar if not more stringent than the U.S. ban prior to the United States imposing its restrictions.”

That contradicts the narratives of both Trump and Biden.

Correction, May 4: We originally misspelled Kate Bedingfield’s last name. We regret the error.