Joe Biden won the U.S. presidency last year in part on a promise to return the country to normalcy by fighting and managing the Covid-19 pandemic. His choices in that fight, whether aggressive or cautious, have had a substantial effect on the business travel industry.
When Biden took office in January, many foreign travelers were banned from entering the United States due to Covid-19 concerns, and the vaccines against the virus were beginning to be administered to at-risk and front-line populations. In his 11 months as president, Biden has kept the gas pedal down on domestic vaccine production, distribution and, eventually, mandates but spent much of 2021 pumping the brakes on restarting international travel, to the consternation of many in the industry.
Biden’s extension of President Donald Trump’s 2020 ban on foreign nationals shortly after taking office and his decision against lifting it as the virus’ delta variant spread drew objections from airlines and travel advocates who pointed to studies that showed vaccination and testing could effectively limit any spread, making the travel bans unnecessary. It wasn’t until November that the measures, in place for nearly 18 months, were lifted, and vaccinated travelers were once again welcomed back into the country.
Biden’s actions regarding vaccination were more aggressive, helping to ensure that supply could reach all U.S. adults in the first few months of his presidency, and then beginning to take steps to overcome vaccine hesitance. The president this summer first announced that all federal workers, including travel-related workers like those of the Transportation Security Administration would be required to be fully vaccinated by late November, without any option for Covid-19 testing as an alternative. That deadline has passed, and the administration has said that upward of 96 percent of federal workers have been vaccinated, although the government said it wouldn’t take action against the recalcitrant until 2022.
Biden in September took his push a step further, issuing executive orders that workers at private companies with more than 100 employees must be vaccinated or face weekly Covid-19 testing—an exemption that did not apply to federal contractors, which he made clear to the largest U.S. airlines included them. While a U.S. federal appeals court last month issued a stay on these orders, it’s nonetheless clear that many travel suppliers face the prospect of vaccination mandates at Biden’s behest.
Many of those suppliers, though, benefited from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March by Biden, which included $14 billion in direct aid to travel suppliers for payroll support programs.
Still, the emergence of the omicron Covid-19 variant brought 2021 to a close under a veil of further uncertainty. While Biden called for a return to normalcy, it’s not there yet.