Icelanders Flock to US as Borders Reopen

The United States opened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers from other countries on Monday, RÚV reports, precipitating a rush of Icelanders looking forward to finally being able to visit family members and/or enjoy some time in the southern sun after over a year and a half of being barred entry to the country.

Prior to Monday, only Icelanders qualifying for particular exemptions, such as travel for work or study, were allowed to enter the US. Now, any traveller who has proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test is allowed to visit.

Five Icelandair flights to the US were scheduled on Monday, to US destinations New York (JFK), Seattle, Boston, and Orlando. Florida is a particularly popular North American destination for Icelanders, particularly in the fall and winter months, and many Icelanders own second homes there.

Ragnheiður Gyða Ragnarsdóttir was travelling to the Sunshine State to clear out the basement of a flat that her parents sold last year—and to enjoy “slightly” better weather than Iceland is currently experiencing.

Sigurbjörg Björgvinsdóttir and her husband were embarking on a four-week trip to Florida as well. She noted that lots of Icelanders stay in the area the couple was travelling to, “a whole neighbourhood,” even.

Icelandair CEO Bogi Nils Bogason said that local bookings skyrocketed as soon as the November 8 border opening was announced. “We now have 11 destinations in North America—ten in the US and one in Canada.” He said that flights would be added depending on demand. “We’re not quite back to normal, but having gotten through COVID, you could say that we’re in a better place now than we were a few months ago. All in all, we’re on a positive track.”

EU Opposes Iceland’s Border Opening Proposal

Icelandair plane Keflavík

Iceland’s government would like to open borders to more countries in July, but the decision could be affected by its membership in the Schengen Agreement, RÚV reports. The Icelandic government is waiting for the European Union to publish a list of countries from which it will allow travellers into the Schengen Area. Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir says Iceland’s proposal to take a more liberal stance toward border opening did not enjoy support within the EU, which hinted that if Iceland did not adhere to the Union’s decisions, it could be closed off from the Schengen Area.

Though Iceland is not a member of the European Union, it is a member of the European Economic Area and the Schengen Area. The Schengen Area’s outer borders have been closed since late March, but plans are in place to reopen the area to outside travellers from July 1.

Unlikely EU Will Open to US Travel in July

EU member states are presently working to define the criteria that countries must fulfil in order to be considered safe destinations for EU residents. The criteria will take into account the number of COVID-19 infections per capita, among other factors.

“It can be considered very likely that the United States will not be on [the list of safe countries] considering the situation today,” Áslaug Arna stated in a radio interview this morning. She expressed her disappointment that the US had not opened its borders to Icelanders, as she had been hoping it would be possible to open Iceland’s borders to US citizens from July 1.

Iceland in Unique Position

In talks with the EU, Áslaug Arna says Icelandic authorities have stressed the country’s unique position – it has relatively few entry points and arriving travellers have the option to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival. “We have reiterated that we’re screening everyone [for COVID-19 at the borders] at this time,” Áslaug stated. Iceland’s representatives have also proposed that Iceland can conduct border control for travellers proceeding to other Schengen Area countries and thus enforce its travel restrictions while still being exempt from them.

The European Union has, however stressed that it expects Schengen Area member states to adhere to its forthcoming list of safe countries in their own travel regulations. “It hasn’t been well received that we have been calling for […] more opening. It has been hinted that borders within this area could be closed to us.” Icelandic authorities have yet to decide whether they will comply with the impending EU list.

Iceland to Loosen COVID-19 Restrictions Starting May 4

Katrín Jakobs Svandís Svavars Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörns press conference

Icelandic preschools and elementary schools will return to regular operation; salons, massage parlours, and museums will reopen; and gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed in Iceland starting on May 4. The Icelandic government announced in a press conference today which COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted in the first stage of loosening measures that were imposed to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated that the country has now passed the peak of infection.

Schools reopen

On May 4, the current gathering ban, limiting gatherings to 20 individuals or fewer, will be raised to 50 individuals. Preschools and elementary schools, which have operated at a limited capacity, will resume regular operation, and junior colleges and universities will reopen. All schools must limit student groups according to the 50-person limit.

Swimming pools, gyms remain closed

Salons, massage parlours, and dentists can reopen on May 4, but are required to maintain a two-metre distance between customers where possible. Outdoor, organised sports activities for children will be permitted as well, provided groups remain under 50 individuals and a two-metre distance is maintained between participants. Swimming pools, gyms, bars, and slot machines will remain closed for the time being. Other organised, outdoor sports will be permitted, though groups may not exceed four persons and participants must maintain a two-metre distance between themselves.

Schengen border closures to be extended

Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir stated that countries within the Schengen territory were planning to extend the territory’s border closures until May 15, and that Iceland would participate in that decision. Áslaug added that the national state of emergency would remain if force as long as any restrictions were in place.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated that authorities were considering limiting tourist arrivals to the country as well as Icelanders’ travel abroad throughout the summer in order to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

Restrictions in place since March 16

Iceland confirmed its first case of coronavirus on February 28. The National Police Commissioner raised Iceland’s Civil Protection Emergency level from alert to Emergency/Distress on March 6 after the first community-transmitted infections of the virus were confirmed. On March 16, Iceland’s first gathering ban was put into place, limiting gatherings to under 100 people and ordering organisers to ensure a two-metre distance between individuals. Junior colleges and universities were also closed, moving teaching online. On March 24, the gathering ban was tightened to 20 individuals or fewer, and various gathering places and businesses were ordered to close, including gyms, swimming pools, bars, clubs, and salons.

Measures lifted in stages, each lasting 3-4 weeks

Authorities say the restrictions currently in place will be lifted in stages, each lasting three or four weeks. This approach will give response teams the opportunity to judge the impact of each set of actions and set the date for the next. Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir stressed the continued importance of the two-metre rule and proper handwashing “as long as this virus is somewhere among us.”