Pandemic Restrictions Are Eroding Our Freedom To Travel

Officials have never liked it when people are free to move about—and beyond their reach.


A collective "huh" echoed earlier this month after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced checkpoints to enforce quarantine restrictions on travelers from places with high risk of COVID-19 infection. While states have imposed similar controls on each other's residents since the beginning of the pandemic, for a city to do so is a big step in the accelerating erosion of the freedom to travel. And it may well be a sign of what we can expect in the future.

"Travelers who have visited 35 designated states or territories with high COVID-19 transmission rates are required to complete the New York State Department of Health traveler form and quarantine for a period of 14 days upon entering New York City," the mayor's office announced on August 5. "The [Department of Finance] Sheriff's Office, in coordination with other law enforcement agencies, will operate traveler registration checkpoints at major bridge and tunnel crossings into New York City."

As with all things done by New York City's government, the reality of the "checkpoint" policy is sloppier than officials would have you believe. Cars are seemingly being stopped at random without regard for the issuing authority of their license plates. Completion of the traveler form is done on the honor system, though failure to comply carries a $2,000 fine. But, however haphazard, the checkpoints are probably a disincentive to many people who might otherwise visit the city.

State-imposed travel restrictions have proliferated since Rhode Island stopped New Yorkers at the border and even chased down those who slipped through back in March.

"Many jurisdictions have responded to the unevenness of the unfolding pandemic by battening down their borders," according to the New England Journal of Medicine. "Nearly half the states have imposed interstate travel restrictions to date… Eight have imposed restrictions on entrants from all states, 12 have imposed them only on entrants from selected high-prevalence areas, and 4 have shifted between these positions."

Americans aren't alone. Canadian provinces imposed similar travel restrictions, as have Australian states. Residents of Melbourne are limited to leaving their homes one at a time, once per day, to shop for "essential goods" within a 5-kilometers radius. Movement is restricted in and out of Auckland, New Zealand.

It's all justified in the name of fighting the pandemic, but that's a flimsy argument. Health experts are highly skeptical of the value of restricting people's movements.

"The results of our systematic review indicate that overall travel restrictions have only limited effectiveness in the prevention of influenza spread," concluded the authors of a 2014 review of the literature on the effectiveness of internal and international travel restrictions published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. "In isolation, travel restrictions might delay the spread and peak of pandemics by a few weeks or months but we found no evidence that they would contain influenza within a defined geographical area."

True, COVID-19 isn't influenza, but it's a virus that spreads in much the same way, and seeps through the same barriers. New Zealand, for example, won praise for sealing itself off from the world to limit transmission, only to have the disease break out anyway in the midst of a surprised population.

These travel restrictions make more sense if you think of them as an expression of government's inherent suspicion of mobility. Officials have never liked it when people are free to move about—and beyond their reach.

"Passports … were invented not to let us roam freely, but to keep us in place—and in check," wrote Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, in a 2018 piece for The New York Review of Books. "They represent the borders and boundaries countries draw around themselves, and the lines they draw around people, too."

Abrahamian points out that travel controls were originally imposed within countries to keep people in place. Only later did they become primarily a concern (in most countries) at national borders.

Looking to the future, Abrahamian fretted that approval for international travel would soon move beyond paper passports and begin "relying entirely on iris scans and fingerprints taken in a split second and vetted by a gigantic database of traveler information." That's a vision of a world in which our biometric information is tied to digital files about us accessible to officials around the world. It's a vision that has been advanced by the pandemic.

"In a contactless world, the adoption of standardized digital travel credentials and initiatives like IATA's ONE ID concept, which promote the use of biometrics for a smoother journey, must be accelerated and adapted to this new context," the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted in May. WEF envisions a world "where your face and body are your passport" linked to our travel history, health information, and whatever else may be of interest to the authorities who control points of passage.

There's no hint—yet—that such controls are in store for travel within countries like the United States. But there's no doubt that the pandemic has normalized controls on movement even beyond those imposed after the hijackings of the 1970s and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We've come a long way since the 1960s when "if you had a ticket, you could board a plane." We've even come a distance since the 1990s when you could purchase a train ticket without showing identification. Now we live in a world of standardized REAL ID that must be produced by anybody "accessing Federal facilities, entering nuclear power plants, and, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft."

It's easy to imagine the replacement of REAL ID by a world "where your face and body are your passport." Imagining the points at which your database entry might be accessed requires nothing more than a glance at the headlines.

"Freedom of movement within and between states is constitutionally protected" but "the constitutional model is losing right now," Meryl Justin Chertoff, executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, wrote in April. "Civil rights groups have been uncharacteristically supine in the face of the actions in Rhode Island, Florida, and elsewhere. They need to step up and test these extreme infractions on rights and liberties in court, as they did during Ebola—because if current measures become precedents the results may be bitter next time."

Since Chertoff penned her piece, a federal judge found some of Kentucky's ban on interstate travel to be unconstitutional. But that was before a new wave of restrictions, including New York City's checkpoints.

Many of these rules are haphazard, unenforceable, and widely ignored. But they're setting the tone for the world in which we live.

Governments always hanker to nail down their subjects so that we're easier to watch, tax, and control. As with past crises, the pandemic is giving officials an excuse to exercise their natural inclination to keep us in place. If we don't push back, we'll lose yet more of our remaining freedom to travel.