Briefing On Updates to State Department Travel Advisories

MR BROWN: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us today for this on-the-record briefing with the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Carl Risch, who will discuss the department’s plans to lift our Global Level 4 Health Advisory in close coordination with the CDC and return to our previous system of country-specific levels of travel advice. As you may recall, our worldwide advisory went into effect in March, and since that time we have advised U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to COVID-19. Assistant Secretary Risch will have opening remarks, and then we’ll take your questions. Joining him on the line is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizen Services Karin King, and she will participate in the question and answer session as well. Please note that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, and I’ll now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Risch. Go ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Great, thank you and good afternoon. I’m pleased to join you here to share some important updates regarding State Department’s travel advisories.

The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens. We are committed to providing U.S. citizens with clear, timely, and reliable information about health and safety conditions overseas so they can make informed travel decisions.

As you know, the State Department issued a Global Health Advisory on March 19, 2020 that advised U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. We put this worldwide advisory in place in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who instituted their own global health warning regarding the unprecedented risks of COVID-19.

Earlier today, and in close coordination with the CDC, the State Department lifted the Global Level 4 Health Advisory and has returned to our previous system of country-specific levels of travel advice, with levels from 1 to 4 depending on country-specific conditions. The CDC has similarly removed its Level 3 Global COVID-19 Pandemic Notice.

This important change reflects the reality that health and safety conditions are improving in some countries while potentially deteriorating in others. By returning to our country-specific travel advisory system, we are able to give Americans detailed and actionable information to make informed travel decisions.

State Department Travel Advisory levels are based on a variety of established risk indicators such as crime, terrorism, kidnapping or hostage taking, civil unrest, natural disasters, health, and other potential risks. Each country’s level is based on our current assessment of conditions on the ground that might affect the welfare or safety of U.S. citizens in that country. The COVID-19 pandemic poses significant risks for travelers, and our destination-specific advisories take into account the latest data and public health and safety analysis on COVID-related risks.

I would like to underscore the fact that global conditions remain highly dynamic, and we continue to recommend U.S. citizens exercise caution when traveling abroad due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

We are closely monitoring health and safety conditions around the globe, working in partnership with the CDC. As always, we will regularly update our destination-specific advice to U.S. travelers as conditions evolve.

Keeping the American public informed of health and safety conditions around the world is key to our broader mission of ensuring the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens. The Department of State has worked closely with the CDC since the start of the pandemic to align our public messages and travel advice and to keep Americans safe, including through the unprecedented repatriation of more than 100,000 Americans from every corner of the globe.

As we continue to monitor global conditions and update our travel safety information, we encourage U.S. citizens to stay connected with us via travel.state.gov and through Facebook and Twitter by following our account @travelgov. U.S. citizens should also enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, to receive timely alerts about evolving health and safety conditions in their planned destinations.

With that, also on the phone is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizen Services Karin King, who is available to answer any questions about the adjustment to our travel advisories. Thank you.

MR BROWN: Okay, for our first question let’s go to the line of Matt Lee from AP.

QUESTION: Hi there, and thank you. I – this is a kind of a logistical question, but I’m just wondering: Did any advisories for specific countries change as a result of this, or have they changed? And if they did, I won’t ask you for each of the 190 – whatever there are – but how many countries are still at Level 4? Can you say that? Thank you.

MS KING: Hi, yes. First of all, the changes are live on travel.state.gov, so you’re free to go there when you can to look at how they’ve changed. Yes, a number have changed. I don’t have the precise number that remain at Level 4, but we have a significant number that went down to Level 3, a smaller number that went down to two, and I believe that we have two places that have gone down to Level 1.

MR BROWN: Okay, great. For our next question, let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks so much for having this. Wanted just to ask you for any guidance you have about the other side of the equation. Granted, you don’t set the rules for other countries, but it is one of those very awkward times where Americans can’t travel to a lot of other countries, and if you could comment any on what, if anything, is being done about that.

Also about passports, we’ve – hearing some complaints, obviously, that Americans are doing – trying to get passports to travel abroad, so that would seem to be necessary for some folks to take advantage of these new changes. Thanks.

MS KING: Yeah, on the first part of the question, we’re obviously aware of that, and what I can say from my office’s perspective is we’re going to work hard to make sure that the information on what is required for U.S. travelers to enter is provided to you on travel.state.gov so that it’s easy to find what requirements are for U.S. citizens to enter. That’s really all that my involvement in this allows me to talk about.

But on the other question, we are committed to reopening passport services. I don’t know if Assistant Secretary Risch has any more to say about that, but we are currently in various stage of phased reopening of agencies. The limiting factor has been what the status of the region where they are is at any given point in time, but our goal is to reopen them as quickly as possible so that U.S. citizens can get their passports in a timely manner.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: And this is Carl Risch. I would add that in June the State Department began a phased resumption of routine passport processing in phases across the country. Our dedicated team of passport professionals have begun to return to our facilities in substantial numbers. We have surged staffing and resources from other consular operations to address this critical need around passports.

We have already reduced the number of pending applications from about 1.8 million passport applications to approximately now 1 million. We want the American people to know that we’re working aggressively to resume normal passport operations and to address COVID-19-related processing delays.

MR BROWN: Great, thanks. Let’s go now to Emily Purser Brown from Sky News.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this call. Can I ask what markers you are looking for when you reconsider – sorry, when you consider reopening some of the travel routes with the likes of the UK and Europe and when you might expect those restrictions to lift, please?

MS KING: Yeah, that again is beyond what my office deals with. We are focused solely on the advice – providing advice to U.S. citizen travelers.

MR BROWN: Okay, next question. Let’s go to Christina Ruffini, CBS.

QUESTION: Sure. Are you concerned that if a large number of Americans start traveling again and the situation backslides, you might have to do another big repatriation effort?

And then do you have any numbers or guidance on how much progress you’ve made with the passport backlog?

And then based on your own criteria system, would the U.S. be a Level 4 advisory, or would it be lower than that based on the prevalence of COVID-19? Thanks.

MS KING: Okay, on what the U.S. would be, again, in terms of COVID, we rely on CDC, so I would ask you to pose that question to CDC.

And on the first question about concern about repatriation, we are trying very hard to calibrate our advice in concert with CDC to give U.S. citizens advice that hopefully doesn’t result in people going to countries where it may not yet be safe to do so. So again, as I said at the top of this, a lot of the world is still at either Level 4 or Level 3, Level 3 being Reconsider Travel.

And on the passport backlog, I’ll let Assistant Secretary Risch address that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Sure, thank you, Karen. As I mentioned previously, we have made tremendous progress on the passport work-in-progress. There was about 1.8 million applications pending in mid-June, and through our surge of personnel and great effort we have reduced that now to approximately one million passport applications, which is about what would normally be in a work-in-progress queue for passports. So we are rapidly approaching, we hope in the next, say, six to eight weeks, a much more normal processing time for passports and a return to a normal level of operations.

MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Let’s go to Dave Shepardson from Reuters.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this call. Two questions: One, it appears there are some instances where CDC is rating a country slightly different than the State Department. I know the CDC is on a one-through-three scale, versus you guys are on a one-through-four. But it looks like they left some countries at the highest warning level when you guys didn’t. Can you get into that or address that?

And secondly, could you talk at all about sort of – and this might be outside of your purview, but ongoing talks with the EU and elsewhere to try to restore travel either through the use of temperature checks or other changes that could help reintroduce travel between the U.S. and the EU?

MS KING: Yeah, thanks. On the second question, again, I’m aware of those conversations, but they’re not something that my office is directly involved in, so I’m not going to be able to answer that for you.

In terms of the first question, where CDC is different from State, there should not be situations where State is lower than CDC. There are some situations where State is at a higher level than CDC. That’s because we look a bit beyond what CDC does. CDC is focused very much on the epidemiological risk. There are a few places where even though the epidemiological risk might be at a Level 3, our posts have come in and said that on top of that, there are on-the-ground issues – for instance, transportation is not available, fuel shortages, food shortages, that sort of thing that increase the risk in – for U.S. citizens even if the health risk would normally have us at a Level 3 if that were the only factor.

Also bear in mind that our travel advisories continue to factor in much more than just health. So there are some countries where although the COVID risk could be at a Level 3 or below, if other risks – for instance, terrorism, civil unrest, crime – are high, we are going to continue to default to the higher advice level as our summary level for the country.

MR BROWN: Okay. Next question, let’s go to Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) about why China is still rated Level 4. The website says that it’s due to travel and quarantine restrictions, so could you elaborate on that?

And also, there have been accusations that the White House, the President in particular, has sought to pressure some agencies to make it – to issue guidelines suggesting that things are getting back to normal with CDC guidelines over school re-openings, for example. Can you talk about the involvement in the White – by the White House in this decision? And was there any political pressure from the White House to remove the Level 4 advisory? Thank you.

MS KING: In terms of the second question, there was no pressure. We, in concert with CDC, identified over time that the Global 4 was no longer accurate. It essentially made every country in the world a Level 4 because of COVID risk, and it was very clear that a number of countries were coming down in terms of the risk posed. So CDC led and we followed with making this adjustment so we can be more accurate.

In terms of – what was the first question? I’m sorry. It garbled a bit. What was the first part of that question, please?

MR BROWN: Moderator, are you able to reopen the line?

OPERATOR: He would need to re-queue up.

MR BROWN: Okay. He’s in the queue.

OPERATOR: And Nick, your line is open again.

MR BROWN: Reiterate the first question —

QUESTION: The question was why – the question is why China remains a Level 4.

MS KING: At this point, again, I don’t have our analysis for every country in front of me, but I would imagine that there are some factors internally above and beyond the CDC assessment that would have contributed to that 4.

MR BROWN: Great. Let’s move on to Nick Schifrin from PBS NewsHour.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I apologize, I jumped on late, so I apologize if this has been asked before, but I wanted to zoom out even from the passport discussion and talk about green cards. Was there any general hold put on the adjudication of green cards, whether being applied from the U.S. or abroad? Was that hold lifted, and/or is there a backlog of green card applications? Thanks.

MS KING: That would be a question for USCIS to answer. That would not be a State Department question.

MR BROWN: Okay, great. Let’s go to Jennifer Hansler from CNN.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I was wondering if the State Department is still fielding calls and requests from folks who are still stranded and looking for repatriation back to the U.S., and if you have any estimate on how many people are still seeking (inaudible). Thank you.

MS KING: Yes, thank you. Yeah, our embassies worldwide are continuing to monitor need for travel, and right now, we are continuing to work with airlines in a couple countries in Africa. I believe in Ghana and Nigeria, we’re continuing to put on some what we call rescue flights; that is, working with carriers to put on flights where they – when they would not normally be traveling.

And we continue to monitor in Cuba, and Venezuela is one place where we’re also very closely looking at options for U.S. citizens. That said, in most of the world now with the resumption of at least some commercial options, we have seen the demand abate very significantly.

MR BROWN: Okay. Let’s go to Humberto from Yomiuri Shimbun.

QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. I had two questions. Just wondering if you guys foresee a possible return given how this plays out, if we could go back to a Level 4 global advisory. And I was wondering also if there were any status on if perhaps, like, the Peace Corps program – would that return or is that kind of on hold? Thank you.

MS KING: In terms of the Peace Corps, of course I can’t – I can’t judge how they are going to respond to this change, so you would have to ask them how our change in posture impacts them.

In terms of return to a global Level 4, I think we would obviously follow what CDC – if they determined there was a need to go back to global posture. But at this point, because we do have countries in so many different stages of disease management, I suspect that we are going to stay at a country-by-country posture.

MR BROWN: All right. Let’s go to Elmar from ZDF German TV.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi, thank you so much. Aside from the question if there is going to be a change in the overall European travel ban, is there a chance or a plan to let journalists who already hold an (I) visa back into the country or actually into the country for election season in the next couple of weeks or months?

MS KING: That’s not something I can answer. My office does not deal with that. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Could you push for that in any way? Because, of course, I know many European media outlets are looking to bring in more colleagues into the country to cover this very important season.

MR BROWN: Hi, Elmar. I think we can take that as a – if Carl can’t address that, then we could take that question offline and respond to you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR BROWN: Yep. All right, let’s take one more question and let’s go to Emily from Newsweek.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much for having us on this call. Was the State Department’s decision to lift the Global Health Advisory like directly motivated by changes that other countries made to their travel restrictions?

MS KING: No, it was based on our recognition that’s saying globally that – it’s advising this risk in every country in the world was such that we needed to say “do not travel” was no longer accurate, that there were individual countries where the risk had gone down and where it was appropriate to lower the level of – to indicate the travel – the “do not travel” was no longer universally applicable.

QUESTION: And you’ll continue to update travel advisories on a country-specific basis from here?

MS KING: Yeah. So CDC continues to monitor every country in the world, and as they identify that a country is either improving or that a country may be going in the other direction, they will let us know and we will, in turn, make the adjustment.

MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Let’s see, we have – it looks like a little bit more time. Let’s go ahead and go to the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking my question. The German minister of health has said that they’re looking at mandatory testing for travelers coming from countries such as the United States. Do you have any comment or response to that? And I wonder if you’re looking at travel incoming from Africa since COVID-19 cases are going up in that region. Thank you.

MS KING: Yeah. Again, there’s really no comment I have to make on that, except that whatever changes Germany makes that impact U.S. travelers, we will make sure to make that information available at travel.state.gov.

MR BROWN: All right. Thank you to our briefers for joining today, for taking their time out of their schedules, and for everyone for jumping on the call. I appreciate your time. As we’ve reached the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted, and I hope you all have a great day. Take care.