WASHINGTON — The federal government is urging Americans not to travel out of the country and that those abroad should either return to the U.S., or prepare to shelter in place amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of State issued the "Level 4: Do Not Travel" warning on Thursday. It's the highest possible travel advisory, in which U.S. citizens abroad are urged to return or prepare to remain abroad "for an indefinite period."
Because of the global impact of COVID-19, the department advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel. Where commercial flights and other travel remains possible, Americans are asked to arrange immediate return unless they had already prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.
Officials say many countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions like mandatory quarantines and closing borders.
If someone does travel internationally, the department said trips could be severely disrupted and some may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite amount of time.
Until the upgrade, the department's advice to U.S. citizens was to “reconsider” all international travel under what is known as a “level three” alert. The global “level four” warning was unprecedented as such alerts are generally reserved for specific countries embroiled in conflict, natural disasters or where Americans face specific risks.
However, the upgrade will likely have little practical effect because it is not mandatory and there are now limited transportation options for international travel. The only way to ban Americans from going abroad would be to invalidate the use of U.S. passports for such travel, a bar that is currently in place only for North Korea.
In addition, the main impact of State Department travel alerts is to cause insurance companies to increase premiums or cancel travel policies for group and individual tours, many of which had been scrapped even before the alert was raised to level three earlier this week.
The department has already advised Americans that many U.S. embassies and consulates abroad are operating with reduced staff and hours due to the COVID-19 outbreak and that services for Americans in need of assistance are limited.
U.S. government services to citizens abroad could be limited as many officials have left over the coronavirus. The State Department on Saturday authorized U.S. personnel and their family members to leave their diplomatic posts where their was a higher risk exposure to COVID-19.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.