After the US lifted Covid-19 travel restrictions, emotions ran high as the anxious wait of many Indians to reunite with their loved ones ended in joy at the Newark International Airport.
There were parents who hadn't seen their children for two years, grandparents eager to hold their grandkids in their arms, fiances waiting to reunite with their loved ones—all were overwhelmed to see their family members emerging out from the exit gate of the airport.
All were travelling on the first flight from India after the restrictions were lifted on Monday.
The Covid-19 pandemic had prompted the US to close its borders to international travellers from many countries, including India, last year. Later, only passengers holding visas belonging to certain categories were permitted to travel.
The US opened its borders for fully vaccinated tourists from November 8, gradually moving ahead to a sense of normalcy and bringing families the joy of reuniting with their loved ones.
"I booked the first flight on the first day," Vipul Shah said as he arrived with his wife. His two daughters waiting anxiously for their parents ran up to them as they saw them emerging from the airport doors.
"I had booked the flight on November 1 itself when I heard that the US is opening up travel for tourists again. But I re-booked them for November 8. I could not wait for November 7 midnight when my wife and I will be able to sit on the flight,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks on seeing his daughters, one of whom is getting married in Indianapolis.
"We have waited too long for this day,” the family said as they hugged and took pictures, cataloguing their reunion.
It was a similar scene for many families as they were reunited following more than two years of having been separated from one another due to the pandemic.
As the Air India flight from Delhi landed, Rupal Patel waited eagerly as she watched passengers gradually come out of the airport doors after completing the immigration formalities.
"I’m waiting for my father. He is 86 years old and I have not seen him in over two years,” she said. “He has been staying alone in Nadiad, Gujarat and has been managing everything on his own throughout the pandemic,” she said, adding that she and her siblings all live abroad and they also could not travel to India during the pandemic due to the travel restrictions.
As Shah was speaking, her father came out. She ran towards him, touched his feet and hugged him, both teary eyed. “It was a good flight. I’m just very happy to be here,” he said as he hugged his daughter.
Nirmit Shelaj was anxiously sipping water, watching others meet their families and friends as he waited for his girlfriend whom he had not seen in over 9 months.
He said his girlfriend, Jolly Dave, a telehealth physical therapist, “used to say this all the time that she wants to break this ‘Apple wall’, the FaceTime thing. That technology cannot replace real human interactions."
He said the pandemic has taught him that “the pandemic, the distance, they cannot break our spirit. They cannot break our relationship, our affection and feelings for each other.”
Dave was among the last passengers to come out of the immigration. “One of my bags had still not arrived. But I was ready to leave that as I couldn’t wait to come out and meet Nirmit,” she said as the couple hugged, not able to control their tears.
Brajendra Brar had come to receive his pregnant niece and granddaughter. Excited to meet them, he said it is still very important for everyone to follow Covid-19 protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing.
"It’s nice that the travel is opening up but we still have to be very careful,” he said, adding that people no longer want to live with travel restrictions and lockdowns.
“Staying away and not being able to meet friends and families is not easy. The pandemic has taught us that,” he said, adding that “it is up to us to ensure that borders remain open, travel is not disrupted and we remain cautious.”
Meetal Sharma could not contain her tears as she hugged her daughter and son-in-law waiting for her at the airport. Sharma, who flew from Ahmedabad on the Air India flight, said she had “no words to describe her happiness... We have been waiting for this day since 2020. I cannot wait to meet my grand kids. Today is a special day.”
“The option to keep doors open to each other is very powerful,” New Jersey resident Rahul Patel told PTI as he waited to receive his parents who were flying in from Gujarat on the early morning Air India flight on Monday.
"Because, things can change,” he said, adding that if the doors are open then "we can travel back and forth, visit families or loved ones who may be sick."
"You can certainly go back and forth and that relieves a lot of pressure, knowing that one can travel within a meaningful time frame.”
The US is allowing fully vaccinated travellers with shots from COVID-19 vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation, except Russia's Sputnik V and China's Cansino.
The travel guidelines include protocols around testing. To further strengthen protections, unvaccinated travellers - whether US Citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), or the small number of accepted unvaccinated foreign nationals - will now need to test within one day of departure.
Fully vaccinated travellers will continue to be required to show a pre-departure negative test taken within three days of travel to the US prior to boarding, the statement said.
Unvaccinated minors will need to test at the same time as the adults with whom they are travelling – three days with vaccinated adults and one day with unvaccinated adults.
“Today, after more than 18 months of pandemic-related travel restrictions, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking a critical step toward resuming normal travel,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas.
“Travellers who are fully vaccinated for Covid-19 and have appropriate documentation are now permitted to enter the United States via our land and ferry border crossings for non-essential reasons such as visiting friends and family and engaging in tourism," the DHS said in a press release.
DHS’s US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is working to prevent long lines at land ports of entry and ferry terminals as normal travel resumes, it added. (With PTI inputs)