For NJ Polish Americans, reunions are finally in sight as U.S. lifts travel ban on European citizens
By Aleksandra Słabisz, Nowy Dziennik
This story was produced as part of a six-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. It has been updated and edited from its original version.
TRENTON, NJ — Polish Americans in New Jersey will finally be reunited with their family members, loved ones and friends who are visiting from Poland. The White House finally announced that the United States will reopen the border for vaccinated travellers from the Schengen area countries, including Poland.
In a tweet, Assistant Press Secretary Munoz has confirmed that travellers from Europe will be able to enter the U.S. territory starting this week, from both air and land.
“The U.S. new travel policy that requires vaccination for foreign national travellers to the United States will begin on November 8. This announcement and date applies to both international air travel and land travel. This policy is guided by public health, stringent, and consistent,” Munoz wrote.
Although the message did not give further details on what will be acceptable proof of vaccination and other operational details, many Polish Americans in the Garden State have expressed excitement that the travel ban has finally been lifted.
“Poles will finally be able to join their families in the United States for Christmas or other special occasions,” said Honorata Pierwoła, president of the Society of Polish American Travel Agents (SPATA), an umbrella organization of some 70 Polish American travel agents.
For nearly two years, the U.S. ban— which affects most European visitors, except for American citizens, permanent residents and a limited number of visa holders flying from Europe — has been imposed since the early days of the pandemic under President Donald Trump.
When President Joe Biden was elected, many Polish American in New Jersey believed he would lift the ban soon after taking office, and that they would soon be reunited with their relatives visiting from their native country. Biden didn’t.
Then later, at a time when Europe and Britain lifted most of their own blanket restrictions on Americans, Polish Americans again hoped that Biden would finally do it. Still, the ban continued.
Upended lives amid U.S. ban
Throughout the U.S. ban, thousands of Polish American families celebrated holidays, christenings, communions, weddings, or held funerals without their relatives and loved ones from Poland.
“I was devastated that my beloved grandma and my cousins from Poland, whom I am very close with, were not able to join me for my wedding,” said 30-year-old Karina B. who had dreamt about a big Polish wedding, with over 150 attendees.
At first she had scheduled her wedding for June 2020. The pandemic forced her and her fiance to postpone the ceremony until the beginning of July 2021.
“We honestly thought the whole pandemic would be over by then. Little did we know [it would take longer than we anticipated],” added Karina.
Her cousins reached out to the U.S. embassy in Poland to ask for an exemption to travel. But they were quickly informed that, under the National Interest Exception (NIE), it does not include non-emergency family visits.
Tom Park and his Polish girlfriend, Kasia P., had a similar experience. The last time they were together was back in 2019, when she came to visit him in Princeton, NJ.
Park is a U.S. citizen, and Kasia is Polish. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Park used to travel to Poland for business. He became more interested in learning about the Polish language and culture, and then he met Kasia.
But when the U.S. closed its borders to Europeans, Kasia wasn’t able to visit him. “I tried applying for the National Interest Exception for her, but my application was turned down,” said Park.
Impact on Polish travel agencies
The U.S. travel ban has also taken a huge toll on the tourism sector, including Polish travel agencies.
In New Jersey alone, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the hotel industry revenue decreased by 78 percent between 2019 and 2021. Over 20,000 people in the state lost jobs in the hospitality sector.
“When the pandemic started, airlines cancelled all flights. Nobody traveled. With no sales and no revenue, I was busy reaching out to the carriers to get refunds for my clients,” said Ania Wojtas, owner of Neptune Travel, which has been in the travel business in Clifton, NJ for 20 years.
Wojtas, like dozens of other Polish who own a travel agency, had no income for a half a year, despite working long hours and picking up more than 600 calls a day. Her agency survived, thanks to her own personal savings.
In the first months of the pandemic, traveling to Poland was possible only via government chartered flights. But later, when commercial flights resumed, many people were still wary of traveling due to the pandemic.
“It was a dreadful year, and I hope it (coronavirus) will never come back. Polish travel agencies, especially those renting space, went through a particularly difficult time. It is a miracle that most of them are still able to operate,” added Pierwoła, of SPATA.
She believed that some travel agencies managed to survive because of the federal and state grant money for small businesses and extended unemployment benefits.
With the travel ban lifted, Wojtas is now optimistic about the future.
“I have sold a record number of vacation packages so far this year. People are hungry to travel,” Wojtas said.
Gov. Murphy vows to help
“As we emerge from this pandemic, we need to make targeted investments in both our small businesses and our workforce to lay the foundation for a stronger and fairer future that works for everyone,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy this spring, when he signed several bills into law that set aside $235 million to help small businesses and individuals impacted by COVID-19.
In early October, Murphy announced additional $10.2 million in CARES Act Funding to be allocated to the Emergency Assistance Grant Program. This funding will be used to provide grants up to $10,000 to businesses impacted by the pandemic.
“Small businesses have always been the backbone of New Jersey’s economy, and they were also the hardest hit by the pandemic,” Murphy said in a statement. “Keeping those businesses afloat amid the turmoil of COVID-19 continues to be a focus of my administration and this money, along with hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to other programs, will go a long way toward helping them keep their doors open.”
Life after the U.S. ban
Tom Park has been looking forward to being with Kasia.
“As soon as they announced that the U.S. travel ban will be lifted, I bought Kasia a ticket,” Park said. “She is coming [to the U.S.] on November 17th.”
The Biden administration will allow entry to the United States to vaccinated travelers from 33 European countries, including Poland.
“Today’s announcement means that on November 8, foreign national air travellers to the United States will be required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of their vaccination status to fly to the United States. Fully vaccinated travellers will continue to be required to show a pre-departure negative test taken within three days of travel prior to boarding,” added assistant press secretary Munoz in his tweet.
All Polish citizens will have to show proof of vaccination, a valid visa or the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) document, as well as a negative COVID test.
Photo caption: A view of the departures hall at Chopin Airport amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in Warsaw, Poland, 29 May 2020. Poland will restart passenger air connections in three stages. (EPA-EFE/Mateusz Marek)