The Observer

Love in the Time of Lockdowns

France announced in early August the introduction of a special procedure whereby partners separated by Covid-19 and travel restrictions could apply for a family reunification. Great news for binational couples!

“Love Is Essential” might sound like the title of a Harlequin romance, but it’s one of several hashtags that highlight the plight of binational couples separated by the travel restrictions imposed in the aftermath of Covid-19. The tags link up to online petitions calling on governments to amend the rules and allow partners in long-distance relationships – whether married or not – to be reunited.

In March, when the extent and severity of the pandemic became painfully clear, countries swiftly shut their borders and raised the drawbridge. Mid-month, President Donald Trump imposed a ban on people traveling from Europe to the U.S. The European Union followed suit shortly afterwards, barring entry to all foreign nationals except in the case of “essential travel” or “imperative family reasons.” As a result, couples with different nationalities faced an unprecedented problem if one of the partners was geographically separated from the other when the rulings came into force.

The issue had already arisen at the domestic level in France, as partners working or traveling separately when a 15-day nationwide lockdown was first imposed mid-March were stranded apart. When parliament met subsequently (and remotely) to pass legislation extending le confinement for a further 30 days, Mireille Clapot, a representative from the Drôme département, tried to tack on a so-called amendement des amoureux, or lovebirds’ amendment, that would add “romance” to the list of valid reasons for traveling from home once restrictions were eased. Despite Ms. Clapot’s claim that the travel veto was tantamount to a “ban on love,” her proposal was rejected – though Health Minister Olivier Véran did thank her for introducing a “tender moment” into the otherwise grim parliamentary agenda.

Being separated from someone living in the same country is bad enough, but couples divided by the Atlantic Ocean face problems of a different magnitude. In addition to emotional stress, they have to deal with practical matters such as returning to the workplace, enrolling kids in school, signing or renewing a lease, or simply resuming normal life. Moreover, the contrasting public-health situations in the United States and Europe have resulted in asymmetric restrictions, with a confusing patchwork of entry-visa restrictions, bans, and partial exceptions which still exist today. Adding to the frustration and resentment is the feeling that some of the rules are unfair. For example, a Texan woman who is due to give birth alone to her first child because the father-to-be is stranded in France expressed bewilderment that she was able to play slots at the local casino but couldn’t have her baby’s father hold her hand through the delivery. Another vexing inequality is the refusal by the U.S. to grant travel exemptions for long-term couples while allowing foreign athletes to compete in professional sporting events.

How Travel Bans Are Strengthening Romance

The situation in Europe has been equally confusing: Some countries, such as Greece, have tightened rules or re-imposed lockdowns, while the U.K. unexpectedly imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers from Spain and Luxembourg, and more recently from France. A growing number of couples are being suddenly forced apart by such fast-changing events. Many have reluctantly accepted their separation and opted for comfort strategies such as dressing up for a Zoom date, binge-watching TV series together, or fostering a pet dog. But the physical absence of the significant other inevitably takes its toll, prompting a search for more creative reunification strategies.

Traveling to a country with looser travel restrictions before heading home together is a solution that some intrepid risk-takers have opted for. One possible return route into the U.S. is through Mexico, currently unaffected by America’s travel ban. But such strategies are often expensive and risky, particularly since the rules are changing constantly as the virus progresses. As one successful French returnee remarked with irony, “it’s crazy to have to go through a country where Covid-19 is intensifying, just as things are getting better in Europe.” (Mexico recently reported one of the highest rates of infection globally.)

Another approach that is gaining momentum is to mount an online campaign, such as #LoveIsEssential and #LoveIsNotTourism, which petition governments to permit the “un-bureaucratic and safe reunion” of family members and partners in long-distance relationships. The signatories insist that they are prepared to meet any and all conditions such as self-paid Covid-19 tests on arrival and departure, and to quarantine themselves until a negative test result is received. These initiatives have attracted increasing attention and are starting to produce results. Among the first countries to move was Denmark, which brought in a “sweetheart exemption” allowing separated, longstanding couples to reunite. Several other countries, including the Netherlands, followed suit. And France announced in early August that it would introduce a special procedure whereby partners who can prove that they have “common activities” could apply for a regroupement familial (family reunification) – although the request would have to be approved by an interministerial commission, which detracts somewhat from the romance.

It is still uncertain whether the progress made so far will be stymied by another coronavirus wave and harsher restrictions. (As of this writing, the United States is mulling a measure to block U.S. citizens and permanent residents from returning home if they are suspected of being Covid-infected.)

What is clear, however, is the intensity of the love-will-conquer-all theme, which confirms La Rochefoucauld’s observation: “Absence lessens mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires.” Many binational couples are hoping that they will soon be able to prove the great author’s maxim.