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US warns Americans not to travel overseas — and to try to get back now

The State Department raised its global travel advisory to a Level 4 “Do Not Travel.”

A passenger pulls a rolling suitcase through an airport.
The Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on March 17, 2020.
AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Editor’s note, April 1: Please note that details about the coronavirus pandemic and recommendations from officials are changing rapidly — visit our coronavirus hub to read all our up-to-date coverage. Here’s the CDC’s current public health guidance.

The Trump administration has a new message to Americans: If you’re here in the country, stay here; if you’re traveling abroad, come back.

On Thursday, the State Department raised its global travel advisory to Level 4, the highest it goes. The advisory warns Americans that they should not travel anywhere in the world because of disruptions caused by the global coronavirus crisis. The order also advises US citizens who live in the US but are currently abroad to return home immediately, “unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

On March 14, the US issued a Level 3 warning for global travel, which advises US citizens to “strongly reconsider” going abroad because of the coronavirus. This new order, which comes just five days later, escalates to a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory.

The Level 4 warning is still a recommendation — if a particularly stern one — not compulsory. It’s usually used to warn Americans against traveling to specific conflict zones (like Syria or Afghanistan) or other places where US citizens might be in danger. China was updated to a Level 4 warning in February at the start of the outbreak.

Now the entire globe is under this heading.

This Level 4 advisory doesn’t help Americans already stuck overseas

With or without this advisory, traveling overseas has become exceedingly difficult as countries enact stringent travel restrictions and airlines dramatically scale back international flights. It’s increasingly hard for anyone, including Americans, to travel anywhere. And the bigger fear now seems to be that US citizens will get stuck abroad if they attempt to travel or do not make plans to get back quickly.

This has already happened in some cases, as countries around the world seal their borders, sometimes with limited warning. The New York Times reported Thursday on thousands of US citizens stuck in Morocco who are unable to access flights home. US Ambassador to Morocco David Fischer said in a video Thursday that the US State Department is working “around the clock” to get them home and encouraged US citizens in that country to register with the embassy.

“We have no greater priority than the safety and security of Americans citizens,” Fischer said. “And we will continue to do all there is to do to support you in these challenging circumstances.”

Americans in places such as Peru and Cambodia have also asked for help, and a US women’s tackle football team is stuck in Honduras.

At a press conference Thursday before the Level 4 advisory was issued, President Donald Trump did not offer details about the order, which he said he would discuss with the State Department “later.” When asked about Americans overseas who can’t get home, Trump said that the US was aware and “working on taking care of that with the military.” He did not go into much further detail about what that meant, though he denied it was a military evacuation.

The US has adopted strict entry measures, too. On Wednesday, the US and Canada announced that their shared border would also be sealed to all nonessential travel. (Canada had days before banned nearly all foreign travelers from entering the country, though US citizens were exempted.)

And the Trump administration issued a travel ban last week stopping all foreign nationals who had been inside the European Union’s 26 Schengen countries in the previous 14 days from entering the US, later expanding it to include the United Kingdom and Ireland, which had initially been exempt.

That EU ban led to a mad rush at airports as US citizens tried to get home, fearing they might get stranded and be unable to access flights back. (Trump, in his Oval Office address announcing the ban, had said “all travel” to the US would be barred. The administration later had to clarify that the order did not apply to US citizens or legal permanent residents, but the freakout had already begun.)

That also led to chaotic scenes at US airports as travelers arrived back in the States en masse, with crowds packed together to undergo screening — exactly what shouldn’t be happening during a pandemic where avoiding contact with crowds is paramount.

The Level 4 travel warning, then, is really the State Department catching up to reality by saying, explicitly, that Americans should return home and stop traveling abroad during a global pandemic — or otherwise be prepared “to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”

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