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E.U. coronavirus safe list: This is why the U.S. was nowhere near making the cut

"The U.S. was never going to make it," one E.U. diplomat said. "Just look at their coronavirus situation."
Image: A bar in the East Village neighborhood in New York City on June 12, during the reopening phase of the city's coronavirus outbreak.
A bar in the East Village neighborhood in New York City on June 12, during the reopening phase of the city's coronavirus outbreak.Jeenah Moon / Reuters file

LONDON — People in Algeria, Rwanda, Uruguay, China and Canada are now free to travel to parts of Europe on vacation. Travelers from the United States aren't.

At first glance, it seems like the European Union has chosen a motley crew of 15 countries whose residents are now officially allowed nonessential travel into its member nations, which has been restricted since the middle of March.

In fact, the Europeans say, the exclusive club was devised using strict epidemiological criteria.

That's why the U.S. — which has the most coronavirus cases and deaths in the world — was nowhere near making the cut, according to three E.U. diplomats involved in the negotiations, who spoke anonymously because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about them.

"What do you think?" one of them deadpanned when asked whether Washington had been close to meeting the threshold.

"The U.S. was never going to make it," another said. "Just look at their coronavirus situation."

So it's no surprise that the list includes countries lauded around the world for successfully tackling COVID-19, including New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

In Canada, where more than 8,600 coronavirus deaths have been recorded, newly reported cases are decreasing and are broadly the same as the European average, so it, too, made the list.

The club also features countries less renowned for their pandemic responses: Tunisia, Uruguay, Serbia, Montenegro, Morocco, Rwanda, Algeria and Georgia, which borders Russia and Turkey. But all of them satisfied the E.U.'s criteria.

China, where the outbreak is believed to have started, says it has had fewer than 400 cases in the past two weeks. It is the last country on the list, on the condition that it allows entry to E.U. citizens in return.

Image: A child in Yongzhou, China
A staff member checking the oral health of a child before she enters a kindergarten in Yongzhou, China.AFP - Getty Images file

A stark omission — from a political and economic perspective, at least — is the U.S.

Effectively blackballing the U.S. will deny European cities the chance to cash in on hordes of lucrative American tourists, and it risks a verbal clash between European governments and President Donald Trump.

During almost a month of talks, there was little, if any, suggestion that the U.S. might be included, the three E.U. diplomats said.

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If that is disappointing for American vacationers, it may be crushing for the European tourist sector.

"In 2019, for instance, we saw around 18 million U.S. visitors coming into Europe, and they spent roughly 70 billion euros," or about $78 billion, said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association, a trade body based in London.

While Americans don't tend to flock to Europe's Mediterranean coastline in great numbers, Jenkins said, they do dominate tourism for cities like Paris and Milan — all of which will feel more pain following Tuesday's decision.

The Europeans said those considerations never entered into their discussions.

Image: A barber in Toronto
A barber in Toronto cut a customer's hair after coronavirus restrictions began to be lifted last month.Carlos Osorio / Reuters

"If we started talking about making exceptions for countries that provide a lot of tourism, even if they have a lot of coronavirus cases, that would not be the right approach," an E.U. diplomat said.

Asked about reports last week that the U.S. would likely be excluded from the final list, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a briefing that the U.S. had been working with its "friends in Europe and the E.U. proper to determine how it is we can best safely reopen international travel."

While he said it was "very important" for the American and European economies to reconnect, he didn't want to reopen in a way "that jeopardizes the United States," and "we don't want to cause problems for anywhere else."

None of the European negotiators brought to the table specific countries they wanted to include. Rather, they outlined the criteria first before seeing which countries fit them, the diplomats said.

The first bar countries had to pass was having the same rate of new coronavirus cases or lower as the European average, which stands at roughly 15 per 100,000 people over the past 14 days.

By contrast, the U.S. had around 145 cases per 100,000 people during that time, according to E.U. data — overshooting the threshold almost 10 times.

Image: Ocean City, Maryland
The boardwalk at Ocean City, Md., is crowded with visitors on Memorial Day weekend after coronavirus restrictions were relaxed.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

As many as 54 countries passed the initial hurdle, according to a draft list seen by NBC News during the negotiations last week.

That was whittled down after the Europeans looked at whether each country's infection rate was increasing or decreasing and how reliable its government was on other issues, such as accurate reporting, testing, surveillance and social distancing.

For example, the central Asian country of Tajikistan says that its coronavirus infection rate is decreasing and that it's below the European average. So it made the initial list of 54 countries, along with India, Turkey, Cuba, Venezuela and dozens of others.

But according to the list, Tajikistan and many other countries have relatively poor IHR scores, relating to the International Health Regulations set out by the World Health Organization, which looks at a host of other factors related to a country's health care system.

When all of those criteria were aligned, the final list of 15 was left standing, finally agreed to by E.U. ambassadors late Friday and confirmed and unveiled Tuesday.

An E.U. spokesperson declined to comment on why the extra criteria of reciprocity had been applied to China. But two E.U. diplomats involved in the negotiations said the extra layer was included because of continued skepticism among some European countries about the hard-to-verify accuracy of China's coronavirus data.

The final list means any non-E.U. citizen living in a country that isn't on the list won't be allowed in until the situation where they live changes. Exceptions include health care workers, diplomats, military personnel and people with family matters that they can prove are urgent.

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But that's not the end of it.

Already, cracks in European unity are beginning to show, with Italy, one of the countries worst hit by the coronavirus, saying within hours of the announcement that it would opt out of the nonbinding list. Only members of the 26-member Schengen Area — which allows passport-free travel within Europe — will be allowed in, it said.

"The global situation remains very complex," Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said. "We must prevent the sacrifices made by Italians in recent months being in vain."