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United Airlines announced this week that it will slash international flights by 20 percent and its domestic schedule by 10 percent, as concerns deepen over the spread of coronavirus.
As a corporate immigration professional, I work with companies that are constantly moving employees around the world to attend business meetings, conduct negotiations, sign contracts, manage projects, and relocate temporarily or permanently for work in a new country. In the global economy, business operations often depend on getting the right people to the right place on time. I have counseled companies through the Swine Flu, SARS, and Ebola epidemics. But the coronavirus has been different.
Not because this disease is necessarily deadlier than the others. While this coronavirus has spread more rapidly than SARS did in its initial months, the mortality rate for SARS was much higher at 15% compared to the most recent WHO figure of 3.4% for COVID-19.
What’s different this time is that U.S. business has never been more integrated with the global economy—more than ever, what happens in Wuhan matters for what happens in Wichita.
As of Saturday, the World Health Organization continues to advise against putting any restrictions on travel, because “evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.”
Nevertheless, at last count more than 70 countries have slapped travel restrictions on China and some have expanded them recently to Italy, South Korea and Iran. Dozens of countries have instituted wholesale entry bans on Chinese nationals and others who have recently traveled to China or other countries deemed high risk. Additionally, some countries have stopped issuing visas or suspended work permit applications for Chinese nationals and others who have traveled to affected areas. Many companies have halted international travel for employees and canceled events because of the outbreaks. Since January 31, the U.S has banned foreign nationals who have been in China in the previous two weeks, quarantined U.S. citizens who had been in Hubei Province, and imposed screening and self-quarantine to those who have traveled to other parts of China. Most airlines have suspended flights to and from China and the State Department continues to apply the highest level travel advisory, recommending against any travel to China. Following the first U.S. deaths of coronavirus patients last weekend, the administration expanded the entry ban to Iran and raised the travel advisory to “do not travel” for areas of Italy and South Korea. President Trump said Monday he is even considering sealing the southern border.
Travel bans may be ineffective at preventing the spread of coronavirus, but the impact of these travel restrictions on business is widespread. In the first month of the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 10,000 flights were canceled. By Feb. 21, 200,000 flights had been grounded affecting millions of travelers. The number of international travelers has exploded over the past decade. In 2009, when the Swine Flu first hit, the number of international air passengers was 2.49 billion. Last year, the number of global air passengers hit 4.32 billion. During the Ebola outbreak from 2013 to 2015, numerous countries imposed travel restrictions, but the bans were limited to a handful of affected countries in West Africa that were less critical to the global economy than China.
In addition to anxiety over operations, manufacturing and supply chains, U.S. companies are now grappling with secondary effects of how to mitigate business disruption caused by travel restrictions that have stranded their employees across the globe, delayed visa processing for business travelers and continue to prevent employees from starting work, attending a visa or green card interview, or getting where they need to be.
Coronavirus will eventually be contained, but the disruption to international movement and immigration is unlike any other public health epidemic in our time. Mobility planning is complex. Even without an international viral epidemic, companies already navigate a labyrinth of immigration policies, ever-changing regulations governing which nationals in which occupations are eligible to apply for work visas in which destinations, and meticulous procedural and documentary requirements for each type of visa. U.S. companies will need to learn from this public health emergency and create contingencies for the next time it happens—to protect their employees’ health as well as to ensure businesses continuity when countries restrict their employees’ movement.
Susan Wehrer is a Partner at Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP where she concentrates on business immigration matters including nonimmigrant visas, labor certification issues, immigrant visa petitions, and adjustment of status applications.