EU Travel Bans Have Separated Some Couples For Months. This Campaign Aims To Fix That.

“All we want to do is be with our significant others. I’ll take a test … I’ll quarantine for 14 days, I’ll continue wearing a mask, I'll do whatever I need to do.”

It started with a tweet. The European Union had just declared that it would not be allowing U.S. travelers in as it gradually reopens, and — in a moment of desperately missing my German boyfriend — I speculated about how annoying it would be if I tweeted exclusively about exempting long-term partners from the ban.

Within an hour, my mentions were flooded with responses from people similarly affected by coronavirus-related travel bans, nearly all of whom used hashtags like #LoveIsNotTourism, #LoveIsEssential or #LiftTheTravelBan.

It turned out I had stumbled across a social media movement that is pushing the EU and, to a lesser extent, the U.S., to exempt long-term, unmarried partners from the travel bans as some restrictions begin to loosen. (Other countries have similar travel restrictions, and currently, the EU has only given the OK for residents of 15 other countries to visit.)

Celeste McLeod, an American who lives in the Virgin Islands and is separated from her British boyfriend, is among those leading the charge. She’s an administrator of a Facebook group called Couples Separated by Travel Bans, and she advises the group’s members to target influential or sympathetic people on Twitter — which explained the responses to my tweet.

Beyond mobilizing people for digital actions, the Facebook group, which was created on June 17 and has since grown to 2,200 members, also serves as a place for members to commiserate and offer tips about which countries have policies that might facilitate reunions, or to share guidance individuals have gotten from consulates or border security agencies.

Many of the stories are similar to mine: In mid-March, as the scale of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban on people traveling from Europe. The European Union followed suit less than a week later, barring entry to all foreign nationals except for “essential travel” or “imperative family reasons.”

That left me stuck in New York without a way to see my boyfriend for a still-indeterminate amount of time. We haven’t seen each other since he got on a plane back to Germany on Feb. 15, after a lovely two-week visit in the U.S. Prior to this spring, the longest stretch we’d gone without seeing each other was two and a half months.

To put it simply, it sucks.

Life in many European nations has, in many ways, returned to something resembling normalcy. On July 1, roughly 900 new coronavirus cases were reported in France; in Germany, there were 500. In many parts of the U.S., especially populous states like Texas, Florida and Arizona, coronavirus cases have skyrocketed over the past few weeks, with thousands of new cases a day. So from a national-level public health perspective, it made sense that when the EU reopened its borders to some international travelers on July 1, Americans were not included.

For those of us missing our European partners — New York was under strict lockdown measures for much of the past three and a half months, and recorded fewer than 650 new cases on July 1 — it felt like a slap in the face.

“We’ve been in quarantine for three months, I did not leave my apartment, I have been doing everything that I could to social distance,” said Eric Herbst, a Manhattan resident who’s been in a long-distance relationship with his Swedish boyfriend for nearly two years and last saw him in early March. “What could have been a great July 1st, that could have been Europe opening up to the U.S., didn’t happen.”

“All we want to do is be with our significant others,” Herbst added. “I’ll take a test … I’ll quarantine for 14 days, I’ll continue wearing a mask, I’ll do whatever I need to do.”

These sorts of precautions are fundamental to the grassroots campaign that has developed around this issue, urging the EU to qualify visits to long-term partners as an “imperative family reason” to travel. So far, the bloc has provided no specific guidance about what qualifies as “imperative,” though most European member states have interpreted it as not including unmarried partners.

When Hannah Maes, a 25-year-old who lives and works in Brussels, called a Belgian hotline to get clarification on what exactly might allow her American girlfriend to enter for an “imperative family reason,” the representative she spoke with asked, “Well, is she dying?”

“I was floored,” Maes said.

The full text of the EU’s pandemic travel policy exempts “family members” from its restrictions and provides a definition from a 2004 European Commission directive that includes “the partner with whom the Union citizen has a durable relationship.” The EU has not specified that long-term partners meet that threshold. By all accounts, it seems that if you don’t have a marriage certificate legally tying you to a European resident or citizen, you cannot see your partner.

“I'm not going to France to take a cute picture in front of the Eiffel Tower. I'm going to France to stay safe with the person that I love.”

That ambiguity leaves most people in this position at a loss for what to do. There’s a smattering of stories in the Couples Separated By Travel Bans group of partners reuniting in Europe, but they are rare and often secondhand. One woman told a story of her sister’s American friend who was able to board a flight to France after convincing airline staff that she and her boyfriend were indeed a couple. Another American woman replied, saying she’d just been barred from boarding a flight from New York to Paris.

Engaged couples — even expectant ones — are encountering the same roadblocks. Texas resident Corsi Crumpler is due to give birth on July 19, and has been separated from her Irish fiance since March 8. After speaking with multiple elected officials, lawyers and immigration experts, Crumpler and her fiance applied for his right to travel on humanitarian grounds. The U.S. Embassy in Ireland rejected their application.

“These bans are arbitrary, unclear, and an absolute breach of human rights in the sense of labeling medical and family emergencies as ‘tourism,’” she said. “Here I am, nine months pregnant, having been patient and compliant, having done everything that was asked of myself and my partner, and I am still alone. And the people who made these rules in the first place are still justifying their decisions to keep families apart.”

Corsi Crumpler and her fiance. 
Corsi Crumpler and her fiance. 

Much of the EU’s reopening has focused on boosting the bloc’s massive tourism industry, so distinguishing family and relationship travel from vacations and business trips has been a point of the campaign to allow people to be reunited with their partners.

I’m not going to France to take a cute picture in front of the Eiffel Tower. I’m going to France to stay safe with the person that I love, while following all safety measures like quarantine and testing,” said Maggie Foster, an American missing her French boyfriend. “The only thing they’re talking about with opening the borders is tourism and money.”

But there is now precedent for allowing foreign partners in. Even as it continues to otherwise follow the EU’s travel ban, beginning on June 27, Denmark has allowed “sweethearts” to enter the country provided they take a COVID-19 test with a negative result up to 72 hours before arrival — which itself prompted a hashtag, #DoItLikeDenmark.

The digital campaign has occasionally moved offline too: On July 1, about 50 people staged a socially distanced protest outside of the Norwegian Parliament in Oslo, carrying signs saying “Love before tourism” and “I haven’t seen my ❤️ in 100 days.” A video of the protest has since been viewed more than 10,000 times on Facebook.

These efforts have paid off to some degree. At the end of last week, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson tweeted, “I want to directly address and support the very committed and vocal #LoveIsEssential campaign. I urge Member State authorities and indeed travel companies to apply as wide a definition of partnerships as possible. … The partner or ‘sweetheart’ with whom the Union citizen or legal resident has a durable relationship which is duly attested should be exempted from EU travel restrictions on non-essential travel.”

But a recommendation made in a tweet, even by a senior EU official, carries little political force. The German interior ministry replied that it would not exempt long-term partners from the travel ban because that is not what the EU’s travel agreement currently allows.

Moritz Körner, a 29-year-old German member of the European Parliament, has been vocal about his push to change that.

“Why should what’s possible in Denmark and recommended by the EU commission be impossible in Germany?” he tweeted on Saturday, urging the German interior minister to “finally grant an exception for the entry of non-married partners.”

For me, the Couples Separated by Travel Bans Facebook group has become an unexpected lifeline. I have in many ways been very lucky throughout the pandemic; I have my health and family nearby, and my job easily shifted to working from home. But being separated by thousands of miles and six time zones from the person I’d most want to be going through a pandemic with has been particularly lonely, and it’s a bizarre mix of negative emotions that is hard to explain to someone not in my position.

“There’s something about knowing I’m not the only person in New York City who has somebody across the world,” Herbst said of the group.

“It started out as me trying to get my boyfriend back,” McLeod said. “Now it’s about me trying to help everyone get their loved ones back — kids, spouses, all of these people who are in untenable situations, it’s just wrong. That’s what the fight is about.”