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Americans spread virus fear in Ireland, an EU country they can visit

By DARA DOYLE | Bloomberg | Published: July 24, 2020

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A barman in Kerry, southwest Ireland, rushed to find his boss earlier this month. We have trouble, Gerard Kennedy was told.

"He said 'it's an American'," according to Kennedy, who runs the Moorings guest house and Bridge Bar. "It was like he had seen a crocodile. Normally, we love overseas visitors. But right now, people here are just nervous."

The episode is a microcosm of the fear inspired by Americans traveling to Ireland, one of the few European Union countries that currently allows U.S. tourists. There's been no sign of an influx, but locals are still spooked by the prospect of a second wave of the coronavirus spurred by overseas visitors, especially from the country with the world's worst outbreak.

In a taste of the cool reception that may await Americans when the rest of the EU reopens, bookings in Ireland have been canceled and visitors turned away as locals question the rationale of the policy.

"COVID-19 is out of control in the U.S.," said Darren O'Rourke, transport spokesman for Sinn Fein, Ireland's main opposition party. "It is reckless that flights are permitted to land here with no additional checks or precautions."

Earlier this month, the EU extended a travel ban for U.S. residents, deeming America's pandemic response inadequate. While it wasn't binding, most member states followed the advice. But Ireland stayed open. It didn't make quarantine mandatory like Slovenia or demand a negative COVID-19 test as Croatia did.

While visitors are told to restrict their movements for two weeks, there's no legal requirement to do so. Under pressure to justify the approach, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told lawmakers this week that mandatory quarantine would be harsh and do little to control the spread of the virus, and the government is still discouraging non-essential travel to the country.

"Restricted movement is very severe," he said. "It essentially means you can go to the shop."

Irish arrivals from the U.S. are down more than 95%. But the concern is that the Americans who do make it to the Emerald Isle are doing more than shopping and aren't taking appropriate precautions.

On Friday, Martin said it might be time to make traveling to Ireland more challenging, hinting the government may consider seeking negative tests from travelers from coronavirus hotspots.

Earlier this month, Janet Kavanagh canceled a bicycle tour booked by two U.S. visitors because they hadn't quarantined.

"These tours are one-on-one," said Kavanagh, who runs E-Whizz tours along Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way trail. "I couldn't put myself and my staff at risk."

The confusion around the rules frustrate many. Jack Teeling's whiskey distillery in Dublin's historic Liberties area has also turned away some overseas visitors because they hadn't isolated themselves for two weeks.

"It goes against everything we try to stand for in terms of a warm, friendly experience," said Teeling. "It strikes me as extremely damaging for our overall tourist reputation."

Back at the Moorings — a popular stopping point for trips to see the jagged island of Skellig Michael, where part of the Star Wars series was filmed — Kennedy has taken great care to safely reopen. Barmen wear visors, contact details are taken, and tables are spaced out.

In the end, the American scare proved a false alarm. It wasn't a tourist but one of the 10,000 U.S. citizens who live in Ireland.

"It was funny," said Kennedy, whose pub is near the jagged island of Skellig Michael. "But it just shows how nervous some are. Most of us are bit scared."

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