UPDATE April 23, 2020: Iceland has announced a 14-day quarantine for ALL travelers, including tourists. The quarantine is in effect from April 24 – May 15th. The details below no longer apply during this period.
If you have a vacation planned to Iceland in the next month or two, should you still go? Will Iceland let you in? Will they let you out? Will you be able to return home?
(This post is mostly focused on travelers from the United States, though the advice would be similar for people from other countries!)
Iceland has coronavirus cases, like almost every other country
First, let’s look at where Iceland is with the outbreak. As of today (March 15, 2020) Iceland has 161 cases of Coronavirus. That’s a big number for a country of about 365,000 people. The rate of coronavirus in Iceland infection is 44 per 100,000 people. If the United States had that rate of infection, there would be nearly 145,000 cases.
The United States “only” has about 3,000 cases identified right now. At first glance it sounds like Iceland is in much worse shape. But I don’t really think that’s true. The US might actually have 145,000 cases. Or more: An official in Ohio estimates that there could be 100,000 cases there.
It is likely that Iceland has more confirmed cases for one simple reason: Iceland is testing a lot more people. Iceland has tested over 1,200 people, or 0.3% of the entire country. If the US had tested 0.3% of the population, they would have run close to a million tests. But the actual number is under 20,000.
Update: Iceland has tested nearly 1,900 samples. Here’s great data directly from the Icelandic government:
Iceland is still welcoming tourists (but see the edit below)
EDIT April 19: For the first time, I saw a quarantine mentioned for tourists visiting Iceland:
In related news, chief epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason announced yesterday that the possibility is being explored of having tourists visiting Iceland go into an immediate 2-week quarantine. This measure is already required of Icelanders returning home from abroad.
Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the managing director of the Icelandic Tourist Board, expressed misgivings at the idea telling reporters that this would effectively make the country as good as closed, as no one visits Iceland just to go straight into quarantine.
Here is what I wrote in March, which is still technically true for visitors from the EU region.
On the one hand, Iceland has been very clear that they are welcoming tourists. I would argue that they are bending over backwards to welcome tourists; hopefully infected tourists aren’t increasing coronavirus cases in the country.
Promote Iceland, the Icelandic Tourism organization, says it plainly: “It is important to note that Iceland remains open and there are no travel restrictions in place for travel to the country or within it.”
And the official Icelandic government web site for Covid-19 says the same thing: “Tourists traveling to Iceland do not need to go into quarantine.” Icelandic citizens returning from high-risk countries have to self-quarantine when entering Iceland, but tourists do not need to.
It’s harder to get to Iceland now
Airlines are cancelling flights at a rapid pace. The new United States travel ban includes Iceland, which means that only US Citizens are allowed to fly from Iceland to the United States. So Icelandair and other airlines can still fly from Iceland to the US, but those planes are going to have many fewer people on them. Icelandair has cut its US service down to only 4 cities: New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Washington DC.
The United States recommends you don’t travel anywhere
The US State Department has a system that tells you how safe they consider an international destination. It has 4 levels:
Iceland is more or less always at Level 1. It’s the safest country in the world, so that makes sense!
But the State Department has issued a Global Level 3 alert, recommending everyone reconsider travel. Level 3 is usually reserved for countries with war zones or gangs that kidnap tourists; a global Level 3 alert is unprecedented.
It’s not fun coming back to the United States
So Iceland will welcome you. The State Department doesn’t want you to go, but you’re allowed to go. Now there’s a new issue: People returning from Europe are spending hours in line.
Airports around the country were thrown into chaos Saturday night as workers scrambled to roll out the Trump administration’s hastily arranged health screenings for travelers returning from Europe.
It sounds awful, at least right now:
This is the scene at O’Hare airport. The traveler who took the photo said it’s a 6-hour wait for bags then on to customs for 2-4 more of waiting in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Police are handing out water and disinfectant wipes. @fly2ohare #ord #coronavirus #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/UTx9E0nj1s
— Brooke Geiger McDonald (@BrookeGMcDonald) March 15, 2020
Things are getting worse, and changing quickly
Iceland is about to implement a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people. The reason is because of community spread of coronavirus in Iceland:
The decision was made to impose this ban now, since some cases of the virus can no longer be traced, and the number of cases keeps rising. The main purpose of the ban is to protect groups that are at risk, due to underlying conditions or old age, and to reduce the load on our healthcare system to make sure it has the capacity to attend to those who need care.
I don’t think you should visit Iceland right now
I feel bad saying this, since Iceland relies on tourism dollars to support its economy. (And, selfishly, I’d love for you to buy my book!)
But you shouldn’t travel to Iceland right now. (You probably shouldn’t travel anywhere right now!) If you already have a trip planned, you should be able to change your flight date: Icelandair is temporarily waiving change fees. Of course, they may have already cancelled your flight!
Let me know (comment below or e-mail) if you’ve canceled your trip, or if you’re still planning to visit Iceland!