There's good news and bad news for Americans who have been itching to take a European vacation. Spain reopens to vaccinated tourists on June 7. Greece, Germany, France, Italy, Croatia and other countries are opening up again soon.
But in order to go, travelers will have to show proof that they've been vaccinated, and it's not yet clear how they'll do that. That's causing a lot of confusion among those with pent-up wanderlust, as demand for air travel has been soaring in recent weeks.
The Transportation Security Administration reports that 1.87 million people went through the nation's airport security checkpoints on May 23. That's the highest number of air travelers since the pandemic began and 90% of 2019 levels.
"The last couple weeks, we have seen a really big pick up [in inquiries and bookings] and it's completely tied to vaccinations," says travel adviser Kendra Thornton, owner of Royal Travel and Tours in Chicago's northern suburbs. "As more and more people get vaccinated, we have more people being comfortable booking travel and planning travel."
Most of Thornton's clients have been booking vacations to Florida's beaches, Hawaii and other domestic destinations, but with much of Europe opening up soon, some are eager to cross the Atlantic.
"We definitely have clients that the second this news came out, were like, OK, I want to go to Portugal, I want to go to Greece, I want to go to Italy," Thornton says.
Those travelers will likely have to prove that they've been vaccinated, and that's a problem, because it's not clear exactly what kind of proof will be accepted.
"It's very confusing and it's changing every minute right now," Thornton says.
For now, travelers can self-report their vaccination status by showing their COVID-19 vaccination card with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logo on it, but as the number of international travelers increases, can you imagine the airport lines as airline or Customs employees try to check each and every one? In addition, many countries including the U.S. continue to require a recent negative COVID-19 test before allowing entry, which requires travelers to present even more paperwork.
Plus there is no single standard vaccination card, and they can be easily lost, damaged or even forged.
"We're basically counting on trust, when the country is facing a trust deficit," says Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University. "So there's no way to verify that someone is, in fact, actually vaccinated; it's only their word that, yes, I'm vaccinated.
Marcus says there needs to be a better way than the honor system.
"There should be either government systems or private sector systems that are reliable that I can use to show to an airline, that I can show as I go into a crowded facility, that I've been vaccinated," he says.
But as of now, there is no federal database tracking who has been vaccinated, and the Biden administration says it will not be issuing what some have dubbed "vaccine passports," a digital certificate that would verify a person's vaccination status.
Some cities and states are considering them for entry into certain businesses or venues. New York already has the voluntary Excelsior Pass that can be shown upon entry to bars, restaurants, concerts and sporting events.
But at least a dozen other states controlled by Republicans, including Arizona, Florida, Texas and Wyoming, are moving in the opposite direction, banning or restricting the use of any sort of vaccine "passport" or a vaccination certification or verification system.
"The residents of our state should not be required by the government to share their private medical information," said Arizona's Republican Gov. Doug Ducey last month. "Vaccination is up to each individual, not the government."
But public health experts point out that Americans have long been required to provide proof of vaccination in certain circumstances, such as to attend school and for international travel.
"We have a lot of precedent for requiring vaccinations for people, recognizing the value of those vaccinations, especially when they're involved with international travel," says Harvard's Leonard Marcus.
"This has become so politicized an issue that it's very difficult for us as a country to do the right thing," he adds.
Nonetheless, a majority of Americans support the concept of requiring vaccination for travel, according to a recent Gallop poll.
Megan Brenan of Gallop says "57% of Americans said that in order to travel by airplane, they would favor requiring people to show proof that they've been vaccinated."
And there is even wider support for some sort of vaccination verification system globally. A recent Ipsos poll on behalf of the World Economic Forum finds that about 3 in 4 adults across 28 countries agree that COVID-19 vaccine passports should be required of travelers to enter their country.
With no uniform way for American travelers to prove to foreign governments that they've been vaccinated, some airlines are trying to step up and develop digital platforms including smartphone apps that will tell customers exactly what documentation they need to provide to enter the country they are going to and a way to upload that documentation.
"Because the requirements for entry differ by almost every single country and, in some cases, by the region within a country, the customer would like to have the peace of mind to know that they comply with those different regulations to come in," says Preston Peterson, director of Customer Experience Innovation at American Airlines. He says their app, called VeriFly, developed with its mobile health partner Daon, provides a platform for the traveler to know that they're good to go.
"A customer can submit their documentation, have it verified and then they receive a green check mark, or effectively, an OK to travel status, that we as the airline trust, the customer can trust and then they know they're ready to go."
Other airlines are developing similar apps or partnering with companies and organizations to create such platforms. The International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, has developed an app called the IATA Travel Pass that's being tested by more than 30 airlines globally, including British Airways, Emirates, Japan Airlines and Qantas. A nonprofit platform called Common Pass is being used by JetBlue, United, Lufthansa and Cathay Pacific, among others.
The governments of the European Union, China, Japan and the United Kingdom are all working on their own digital vaccination certificates for international travel.
The World Health Organization is working on creating standards for developing "Smart Vaccination Certificates" but also advises countries against requiring proof of vaccination, citing unequal global distribution of vaccines.
All of these efforts underscore the lack of one central national and international system to verify vaccination status, so it will likely take some time for governments, airlines and travelers to sort out exactly what will be accepted where as proof of vaccination.