Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry reversed himself Friday and endorsed a temporary ban on travel to the United States from the West African countries where there is an outbreak of the deadly virus.
He joined a growing chorus of more than 70 lawmakers from both parties, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who want Congress to reconvene before the midterm elections to vote on a ban, even as President Barack Obama was lukewarm to the idea and federal health officials said such a ban might cause more problems.
The concern over the spread of the Ebola virus through all types of transportation mounted Friday with the quarantine of a Dallas hospital worker who has embarked on a Caribbean cruise after being involved in testing lab samples of Thomas Eric Duncan. In response, the state of Texas ordered those who have been under a 21-day watch for signs of the illness to stay off planes, boats and mass transit.
Texas is ground zero for the debate after the death of Duncan, the first U.S. Ebola patient, who checked into Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas after flying to the U.S. from Liberia.
Two nurses who cared for Duncan have now been diagnosed with the virus, and the discovery that one of them took flights has heightened tensions and sent federal officials scrambling to contact those on her trips from Dallas to Cleveland and back.
“Air travel is in fact how this disease crosses borders and it’s certainly how it got to Texas,” Perry said at a press conference in Austin after cutting short a European trade trip. Earlier in the month, Perry had sided with the administration’s emphasis on screening procedures at the five U.S. airports that are the entry points for the overwhelming majority of travelers from West Africa.
Obama on Thursday had a measured response to the calls for a West African travel ban. “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily to a travel ban if that is the thing that is going to keep the American people safe,” he said.
“The problem is,” he told reporters in the Oval Office, “that in all the discussions I’ve had thus far with experts in the field, experts in infectious disease, is that a travel ban is less effective than the measures that we are currently instituting that involve screening passengers who are coming from West Africa.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that the president has an “open mind” on a travel ban but that the administration is not currently considering one.
The president, bolstered by the Centers for Disease Control, has said that a ban would increase the chances of people avoiding being forthcoming when questioned and hiding from where they had traveled.
The airline and cruise industries oppose a mandatory travel ban.
“We agree with the White House that discussions of flight bans are not necessary and actually impede efforts to stop the disease in its tracks in West Africa,” said Victoria Day, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade association.
And Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that cruise lines already were denying boarding “for all passengers and crew arriving from countries designated with a Level 3 Travel Health warning by CDC.”
There are three countries on that list: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Although the majority of lawmakers calling for a travel ban are Republicans, Democrats joined in Friday, as well, as political pressure mounted.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., locked in a close re-election race, said Friday that the president should institute an immediate travel ban. “I am calling on the administration to temporarily ban the travel of non-U.S. citizens from the affected countries in West Africa,” she said in a press release. Earlier she had stopped short of calling for a ban, saying it should be considered as part of a comprehensive response.
Ideas for implementing a travel ban span from forbidding flights to imposing severe travel restrictions by suspending visa requests or delaying them for a 21-day period.
Cruz, who is presumed to be considering a presidential run in 2016, amped up the volume this week. Responding to the appointment of an “Ebola czar,” Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, Cruz said, “This is a public health crisis, and the answer isn’t another White House political operative. The answer is a commander in chief who stands up and leads, banning flights from Ebola-afflicted nations and acting decisively to secure our southern border.”
He was one of a group of GOP senators who wrote Obama Friday urging a ban on visas from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and screening of passengers who have visited West Africa.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a physician who did part of his internship at Texas Presbyterian, told administration health care officials at a hearing Thursday of a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “I support a House vote on travel restrictions.”