Stuck? Amid COVID-19, International Athletes Navigate A Reinstated Travel Ban


Stuck? Amid COVID-19, International Athletes Navigate A Reinstated Travel Ban

The Biden administration’s decision on Jan. 25 to reimpose the travel ban on European countries, with the addition of South Africa and Brazil, has significantly affected the experience of international college athletes in the United States.

The ban, first imposed by the Trump administration, was set to expire on Jan. 26. Biden’s proclamation renewed the ban effective Jan. 30 and will continue until the President chooses to terminate it. It will bar entry to travelers from Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Schengen area, which contains 26 countries.

More than 20,000 international student-athletes compete and study in NCAA institutions in the United States. According to this map, the travel ban will directly affect just over half of those athletes. The ban is intended to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the variant strains B.1.351 and B.1.1.7. While the restrictions will hopefully help to stifle the nationwide flow of the virus, they will also alter the lives of international athletes stuck far from their homes.

After the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the United States in March 2020, Jeanri Buys returned to her hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa for the first time in seven months.. Upon her return to the country, Buys entered a 14-day self quarantine, which became government mandated just days later.

Roughly three months after her return to South Africa, the Trump administration’s travel ban was announced. A rising sophomore swimmer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Buys barely caught a flight back into the United States before the ban took full effect. Buys said she initially felt scared and then confused when she heard about the ban’s renewal under the Biden administration. She quickly learned that her flight home in early May had been canceled and she was informed that her return flight would soon follow.

I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Buys said. “I didn’t know if that meant I couldn’t go home, or I couldn’t come back here, or what the deal was.

Fortunately, Buys found an alternate flight home with Emirates airlines, which is based in Garhoud, Dubai. The new flight is more expensive and will add roughly seven hours to her trip, but it allows her to get home at the same time as she initially planned. Before the flight, Buys plans to get tested for COVID-19, and is required to fill out a health survey 48 hours prior to departure.

Along with many other international athletes, Buys maintains her residency in the US with an F-1 student visa. It’s this visa that should allow her re-entry into the country in the summer.

But nothing is a guarantee during a pandemic. Buys keeps in contact with various South African athletes across the nation, and says many of her friends were not able to find a flight home. She says some athletes are traveling home later in the summer with hopes that their flights won’t be canceled, while others are choosing not to return to South Africa for fear they won’t be able to re-enter the United States in the fall.

South Africa currently sports a 90.5% recovery rate and 3.1% fatality rate in contrast to the United States’ 62.2% recovery rate and 1.7 percent fatality rate.

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout progressing in the United States, it seems international athletes will have to hold their breaths as to whether the travel ban will be lifted before the beginning of the fall semester.

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3 years ago

As a parent of another South African NCAA swimmer, I share the confusion and frustration. Consider that this is an Olympic year. SA swimming trials are 2 weeks after NCAA D1 Champs. That doesn’t leave any room for quarantine. Swimming SA also doesn’t accept results from abroad for team qualifications, you have to be present and competing in SA. Not just for Olympic team selection but this will also affect team select for Commonwealth games and World Student games. Added to this, with everything cancelled last summer in the US, there has been no opportunity to get any Long Course meters under the belt. Especially since USA swimming restricted the Pro Series to US citizens only. If you are a South African swimmer in the US College circuit this year, your international aspirations are screwed.

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