‘I Almost Feel Stateless’: Virus Delays Passports for 1.7 Million Americans

‘I Almost Feel Stateless’: Virus Delays Passports for 1.7 Million Americans

‘I Almost Feel Stateless’: Virus Delays Passports for 1.7 Million Americans

‘I Almost Feel Stateless’: Virus Delays Passports for 1.7 Million Americans

WASHINGTON — Sarah Farris, an American living in Singapore, rushed to her parents’ home in Florida in April to see her father before he died. She is now stuck, unable to return to her job, because she has been unable to renew her expiring passport.

In Switzerland, Leslie Hansen has been waiting since mid-March to renew her U.S. passport, which expired in May. Without it, she has no valid travel document and only a nondescript letter from the American Embassy in Bern to prove her citizenship.

Even U.S. government employees are among what officials described on Friday as a backlog of 1.7 million Americans waiting for passports after the State Department shut down most of its consular services to protect its staff from contracting the coronavirus.

Jason Talley, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been waiting since March to apply for passports for his family to go on a $12,000 family vacation this summer to Europe that he booked in January.

“That’s the pit in my stomach, where I’m like, all that money’s gone,” said Mr. Talley, who lives in Fredericksburg, Va., and saved for nearly seven years to afford the vacation. He cannot fly without the passports, and the cost of his foreign airfares and other bookings are unlikely to be refunded.

This week, the State Department reopened 11 passport agencies across the United States, in the hopes of processing about 200,000 applications each week, going back to February. But officials predicted it would still take up to eight weeks — before even starting on new applications — to cut through the backlog as consular employees return in phases after months of working from home.

Over the last three months, officials have expedited passport applications only for what Carl C. Risch, the department’s assistant secretary for consular affairs, described on Friday as life-or-death situations.

Passport services in American embassies and consulates abroad also have been suspended for all but urgent cases, and will reopen only after health conditions in each host country have been deemed safe for U.S. diplomats to return to work.

As many as two million Americans are overseas at any one time. The State Department processes about 18 million passports annually.

“We are aggressively increasing our processing capability, and doing everything we can do return to normal as quickly as possible,” Mr. Risch told reporters on a conference call.

He cited a “tremendously unpredictable environment” and said officials were trying to plan a better process if consular services were similarly shuttered in the future.

The delicate balance of how to provide U.S. citizens with passports while safeguarding employees who process them has confounded State Department officials during a pandemic that has all but paralyzed most routine consular services.

The dilemma has been amplified by President Trump’s demand to “REOPEN OUR COUNTRY,” as he wrote on Twitter last month, and pressure on everything from churches to restaurants to restart serving Americans.

Ms. Farris, a guidance counselor at an American school in Singapore, said State Department consular officers had told her that she might not receive her new passport until September. Her requests to have it expedited so that she can return to her job have been denied.

“The grocery store is open. People are delivering the mail,” Ms. Farris said this week in an interview. “You put on a mask and you do social distancing. This seems like an essential service.”

Far more than a travel document, passports are necessary to Americans abroad to prove citizenship when foreign authorities demand identification for a range of legal issues, including immigration and residency. They also serve as a powerful badge of protection for Americans under threat and are meant to assure embassy representation when it is needed.

Given the access that American passports provide, and to guard against counterfeiting and stolen identities, the documents generally are processed in secure facilities in the United States.

In a letter last week, seven Republican senators urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to find a resolution since the department “has not taken steps to innovate or adapt to a remote working process for this particular function.”

Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, said the process “needs to be fixed long term.”

“Once flights reopen, once cross-border traffic reopens, we don’t need to have the government be the reason that they can’t actually move,” he said in an interview.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

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    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

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      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


The delay may have a silver lining for businesses in the United States, however, as virus-wary Americans who do not have valid passports opt for domestic travel instead of going overseas.

Adam Sacks, the president of Tourism Economics, said that Americans were projected to spend $139 billion abroad this year. That money, he said, could be pumped back into the American economy and help offset financial losses from international travelers who spent $154 billion in the United States last year but are not expected to visit during the pandemic.

Mr. Risch said about half of the employees who process passports had returned to consular offices this week, and an additional 150 workers from other parts of the State Department were being pulled in to help. They will all be given personal protective equipment — like face masks and gloves — and will keep safe distances from one another.

Mr. Risch said passport applications would be considered on a “first in, first out” basis that would prioritize people who have been waiting since February.

In the past, consular officers have taken pains to try to sort out priority cases among applicants. That may still be quietly happening, at least to some extent.

“I am positive that they are on it to the extent that it is possible to be on it,” said Michele Thoren Bond, who was an assistant secretary for consular affairs during the Obama administration.

She said consular officers were well aware that Americans who are stuck have no other way to get passports.

Ms. Hansen, who has lived in Switzerland for the last 20 years, said American diplomats there appeared to share her frustration in being unable to renew her passport after she first tried to schedule an appointment to do so in February.

“I almost feel stateless,” she said in an interview on Friday. “I’m not in my own country and I don’t have my passport.”

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Tacey Rychter from New York.




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