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Hours before President Donald J. Trump blocked non-essential travel from Europe on March 11, 2020, in response to the spiraling coronavirus pandemic, Elisabeth Goodridge, deputy editor-in-chief of The New York Times, flew to her New York home from Brussels, where she had been on vacation with her family. “Countries started to close,” Ms Goodridge recalled.
Ernesto Londoño, then head of The Times’ Brazil bureau, emailed Ms. Goodridge about travel restrictions that will also come into effect in the Caribbean and South America. Ms. Goodridge asked Mr. Londoño to list the new restrictions and instructed reporter Aimee Ortiz to cover travel restrictions in other regions, including Europe and Asia. “I have a little bit of PTSD looking back at my Slack from that weekend,” Ms. Goodridge said in a recent interview.
Just three days after the entry ban was announced, the Travel section published “I am an American citizen. Where in the world can I go?” The master list, which started with changes in 35 countries, outlined not only where American tourists could travel, but also what restrictions there were, if any.
“It just exploded,” Ms. Goodridge said. “So many different countries closed their borders and evolved their rules.” (The State Department published their own list a few days later.)
In the more than two years since its publication, the list has grown to more than 150 countries and is Travel’s most-watched story since the start of the pandemic. And it will end on July 1, marking a new phase of travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
Keeping up with international tourist restrictions was a team effort. For the past two years, about a dozen reporters have contributed to the list and have been working to update it weekly. “At the very beginning, it was all hands on deck because things changed so quickly,” says travel editor Amy Virshup. In 2021, the most consistent contributor was the freelance reporter Karen Schwartz; freelance reporter Paige McClanahan took over in December 2021 and she’s been keeping the list ever since from her home in the French Alps.
Ms. McClanahan said to update the article, she would go through the list alphabetically, aiming to check 10 to 12 countries each day. She called or visited the websites of US embassies, departments of health and state, national tourism boards and airlines looking for policy changes. Then she read Twitter, the news, and an email inbox the Travel desk set up for tips submitted by readers. “I learned to get a sense of when rules would shift,” she said. “Regions tend to move together.”
When the Omicron variant started spreading in December 2021, “it was a story of barriers going up,” she said. “Gradually it changed. When February and March came, countries started opening.” She said some countries changed their restrictions every week.
During her tenure, Ms. McClanahan said, readers would email the Times travel inbox to share their own experiences or ask her to look at certain destinations. Sometimes a reader’s question sparked a bigger conversation, such as when John Henretta, a 75-year-old Floridian, wrote asking if he could go on his hiking trip to Switzerland nine months after receiving his booster. “You would think it would be a pretty easy question to answer,” Ms. McClanahan said. But the answer turned out to be complicated enough to justify his own article on vaccine timing and international travel.
Readers often signed up with very specific or personal travel questions. “I felt like a therapist,” said Ms. McClanahan. “You could really feel people’s confusion about this and their concern about the rules.”
While the list has been a trusted source for travelers, a new chapter of tourism has begun in the pandemic. According to Transport Security Administration Checkpoint Statistics, travel is approaching prepandemic levels. Ms. Virshup said the turning point came in mid-June, when the United States dropped its test requirement for return. And right now, most countries only require a vaccination certificate to enter, said Suzanne MacNeille, an editor of the project. “We’re working to see everything simplified,” she said.
“The most important thing for the travel industry now is trying to meet the demand,” Ms Virshup said. And with fewer restrictions to follow, the travel desk stays on top of emerging tourism trends and airline issues like delayed flights and lost luggage.
“I think people have turned to the list to seek advice on the Covid travel rules themselves, but also to navigate this world we live in now,” Ms McClanahan said. “The end of this column does feel symbolic of the freedom we are returning to, even if there is some uncertainty that comes with it.”
“Covid is not going away,” Ms Goodridge said. “People are just trying to learn to live with that. And one thing they did realize – millions of people – was the importance of travel in their lives.”