Health Care

What Would an Ebola Travel Ban Actually Look Like?

Even if the government gets around the legal and administrative hurdles, imposing the ban may make fighting Ebola harder — or even trigger a stock-market panic.

A man dressed in a protective suit and mask holds a poster outside the White House on October 16, 2014.
National Journal
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Kaveh Waddell
Oct. 17, 2014, 1 a.m.

As of Thursday even­ing, 11 sen­at­ors and 59 mem­bers of the House had spoken out in fa­vor of a travel ban on flights to and from Ebola-stricken West Afric­an na­tions. But not much at­ten­tion has been paid to what such a ban would look like, or if it could even reas­on­ably work.

How would a travel ban be im­ple­men­ted?

Prac­tic­ally, the frame­work already ex­ists for a travel ban, says Amer­ic­an Uni­versity law pro­fess­or Steve Vladeck. In­di­vidu­als are already turned away from U.S.-bound flights if they’re deemed a threat or ap­pear on a no-fly list. “A travel ban is just a more whole­sale ver­sion of that ap­proach — where the U.S. would not al­low flights from cer­tain coun­tries to enter U.S. air­space and/or land at U.S. air­ports,” Vladeck says.

The Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which already gets to de­cide what planes can enter U.S. air­space and land at Amer­ic­an air­ports, would most likely be in charge of en­for­cing such a ban, he says.

A ban would be straight­for­ward if the only ob­ject­ive were pre­vent­ing an Ebola pa­tient from board­ing a flight in Mon­rovia that’s bound for JFK. But in fact, there are few U.S. car­ri­ers cur­rently op­er­at­ing dir­ect flights to and from West Africa: Most likely, pas­sen­gers would ar­rive stateside after a stop­over some­place else. Thomas Duncan, the first pa­tient to be dia­gnosed with — and die from — Ebola in the U.S., flew from Liber­ia by way of Brus­sels.

This is where things get com­plic­ated. If the ban is to tar­get all pas­sen­gers who traveled through West Africa, “that would re­quire a sub­stan­tial amount of co­ordin­a­tion with our friends and part­ners over­seas,” says Vladeck. Coun­tries already share in­form­a­tion about air pas­sen­gers with oth­ers — the ques­tion is wheth­er the U.S. can con­vince oth­er coun­tries’ travel min­is­tries to share enough to be able to piece to­geth­er trav­el­ers’ pre­vi­ous stops.

And there re­mains the ques­tion of leg­al­ity. If the ban is lim­ited to non­cit­izens, its leg­al­ity is fairly clear: It’s up to the U.S. to de­term­ine its own im­mig­ra­tion policy, and it can keep for­eign na­tion­als out as it wishes, says Vladeck.

But once we’re talk­ing about a travel ban on Amer­ic­an cit­izens who may be in those areas, “the cal­cu­lus changes rather dra­mat­ic­ally, be­cause courts have gen­er­ally re­cog­nized a right on the part of U.S. cit­izens to travel,” he says. The ques­tion then be­comes one of due pro­cess: the gov­ern­ment would have to make sure the ban al­lows cit­izens to demon­strate that they’re not a risk to pub­lic health, for ex­ample.

What would the ex­tern­al ef­fects of a travel ban be?

Air­line stocks have already taken a hit as in­vestors won­der if fear of Ebola could keep trav­el­ers from fly­ing. Shares dove deep­er after it came out that a nurse who would later be dia­gnosed with the dis­ease took two do­mest­ic flights the week be­fore she was isol­ated for treat­ment.

Air­lines are go­ing out of their way to re­as­sure trav­el­ers that it’s still safe to get on a plane. U.S. air­line com­pan­ies are co­oper­at­ing with the gov­ern­ment to put new screen­ing meas­ures in place to catch sick pas­sen­gers, says Nick Calio, CEO of Air­lines for Amer­ica, a trade as­so­ci­ation. “Be­cause of these co­ordin­ated ef­forts, we be­lieve dis­cus­sions of flight bans are not ne­ces­sary and ac­tu­ally im­pede ef­forts to stop the dis­ease in its tracks in West Africa,” Calio wrote in a state­ment.

A travel ban could have eco­nom­ic con­sequences bey­ond the ob­vi­ous dip in busi­ness and share val­ues, says Gab­ri­el Mathy, a pro­fess­or of eco­nom­ics at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity. “It’s more of a prob­lem in terms of the fu­ture,” Mathy says. “If we have these kind of travel bans, it’s go­ing to sig­nal to Africa that they can’t really rely on open­ness in the West.” This kind of a sig­nal could con­tin­ue to have an ad­verse af­fect on in­ter­na­tion­al trade, even after a tem­por­ary ban is lif­ted.

More im­me­di­ately, says Mathy, the stock mar­ket as a whole could take a hit if a ban were im­posed. The gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent re­luct­ance to take the step im­plies con­fid­ence, he says, but a change of heart could spark a mar­ket pan­ic. “If they have to im­pose a travel ban, it means that maybe things are spiral­ing out of con­trol, and I think that could have some big eco­nom­ic con­sequences.”

A travel ban could also get in the way of med­ic­al work in West Africa. Doc­tors Without Bor­ders is one of the most act­ive groups fight­ing Ebola in the re­gion. Tim Shenk, a spokes­man for the the aid or­gan­iz­a­tion, says the Ebola epi­dem­ic calls for meas­ures that make it easi­er to trans­port people and re­sources, not harder. “It is cru­cial that air­lines con­tin­ue fly­ing to the af­fected re­gion,” he says.

Big name law­makers are lead­ing the calls for a ban. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio have spoken out in fa­vor of travel re­stric­tions. House Speak­er John Boehner also threw his hat in the ring when he said the pres­id­ent should “ab­so­lutely con­sider” a travel ban.

But the White House has re­peatedly said that a ban is not on the table, and health of­fi­cials from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, and the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health warned Con­gress Wed­nes­day that a ban could ac­tu­ally make ac­count­ing for sick trav­el­ers much more dif­fi­cult.

It’s pos­sible a ban isn’t ne­ces­sary to reach the goal of keep­ing sick trav­el­ers out of the U.S. The gov­ern­ment already has the au­thor­ity to screen trav­el­ers for health is­sues when they ar­rive in the U.S., says Vladeck, and it can quar­ant­ine those who could po­ten­tially be con­ta­gious — even against their will. “And so the real ques­tion for any­one pro­pos­ing an out­right travel ban,” he says, “is why those meas­ures, if prop­erly ad­min­istered, would be in­suf­fi­cient to pro­tect against the do­mest­ic spread of the dis­ease.”


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