BRUSSELS — The European Union is officially recommending that the 27-member bloc lift restrictions on US travelers, a long-anticipated move that will allow a return to near-normal travel with the continent for the first time since the pandemic began, according to diplomats.
The European diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement planned for Friday.
EU ambassadors decided Wednesday to approve a proposal to add the United States — along with Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Serbia — to its “white list” of places where nonessential travelers are allowed in from across the bloc, sources said. Although this list is nonbinding, it seeks to harmonize travel rules across the European Union. Some European countries, including Greece, Portugal, and Spain, are already accepting vaccinated US travelers.
The full resumption of transatlantic travel still has one further hurdle: The United States has yet to say when it will reciprocally lift its ban on EU travelers, although that move is similarly expected within weeks.
Inclusion on the “white list,” created in June 2020, means EU countries can accept travelers regardless of their vaccination status, although each individual country can set its own requirements for entry and quarantine. Australia, Israel, Japan, and New Zealand are among the countries already on the list.
The resumption of travel will be a major boost to tourism-dependent economies across the continent.
Following a slow start to vaccine rollouts, European officials and policymakers hope that the bloc will reach herd immunity by July. So far, around 45 percent of the nearly 450 million EU residents have been inoculated with at least one shot, and around half of those have been fully vaccinated.
Earlier this week, the EU Parliament also formally approved legislation to create a digital certificate system starting July 1 that would scrap quarantine requirements for people who can prove they are vaccinated or that they have recently recovered from COVID-19 or tested negative for the virus.
France eases mandatory mask-wearing outdoors, ends nightly coronavirus curfew
PARIS — France is easing mandatory mask-wearing outdoors and will halt an eight-month nightly coronavirus curfew on Sunday.
The announcement by French Prime Minister Jean Castex comes as France reports about 3,900 daily virus cases on average, down from 35,000 in the March-April peak.
Castex welcomed the “very good news,” saying the curfew will be lifted 10 days earlier than expected. Wearing a mask will still remain mandatory outdoors in crowded places like street markets and stadiums, he says. People are required to wear a mask indoors in public spaces, including at work — with an exception for restaurants and bars.
More than 58 percent of France’s adult population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. On Tuesday, vaccinations opened to those ages 12-18 to help protect the nation as restrictions are gradually lifted.
Terraces at restaurants and cafes, theaters, cinemas, and museums all reopened May 19. Last week, France reopened indoor spaces in restaurants and cafes as well as gyms and swimming pools.
Major sports and cultural events can have a maximum of 5,000 people, and all need to show a vaccination certificate or a negative test within the last 48 hours.
The nation has reported 110,563 confirmed deaths, one of the highest tolls in Europe.
British man videotaped ‘hounding’ journalist charged
LONDON — British police confirmed Wednesday that a 57-year-old man seen in a video haranguing and chasing a BBC producer together with a mob of anti-lockdown protesters has been charged.
In the footage, widely shared on Twitter, anti-shutdown protesters outside Downing Street chase and verbally abuse journalist Nick Watt in the run-up to Monday’s announcement that England’s final stage of coronavirus restriction rollbacks would be delayed.
The footage drew condemnation from rights groups and government officials Tuesday, including the prime minister.
“Disgraceful to see the hounding of Nick Watt doing his job,” Boris Johnson tweeted.
Police identified the man as Martin Hockridge and said that he was charged with “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards another person with the intention to cause them harassment, alarm or distress” and that he would appear in court later this month.
The video showed protesters surrounding Watt, a political editor, yelling “traitor” and “shame on you” into his face as he runs toward police seeking safety. Some demonstrators accused the BBC of “lying” about the legality of shutdown measures.
The incident highlighted the distrust and divisions that remain over Britain’s rules and restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Undervaccinated US counties threaten resurgence of virus
As much of the US emerges from masking and social distancing, undervaccinated pockets in the country still threaten to bring the virus roaring back.
Less than 25 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in at least 482 counties, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by Bloomberg News. Many of these counties are more rural and less economically advantaged than the rest of the US, and a majority of their voters in the last presidential election chose Donald Trump, according to the analysis of 2,700 US counties.
Though more than 174 million Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, accounting for about 64.6 percent of the adult population, such averages belie stark gaps in vaccination rates at a local level. With more contagious versions of the virus like the delta variant taking hold, this creates opportunities for further spread.
Hidden pockets of low rates of vaccinations at the local level have been a challenge before in the US. “When you start to look at communities, you start to really unveil very, very low vaccination rates that tend to get averaged out when you’re looking at the entire country or even on an entire state,” said Maimuna Majumder, a health informatics researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital. Viruses don’t spread at a national or statewide level, she said, but among friends, family, and neighbors in a community, passing it to each other as people go about their daily lives.
The country’s past experience with measles, for instance, shows just what it’s up against with COVID-19. The World Health Organization declared in 2000 that measles had been eliminated from the US. Yet in 2014 amid declining childhood vaccinations, more than 600 cases appeared. Even so, overall measles vaccination rates hadn’t changed significantly in well over a decade.