#LoveIsNotTourism: The binational couples separated by Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has been tough and lonely for many but it has been particularly challenging for binational couples who have been separated by travel restrictions.

Whilst most people were stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitiser right before the shelter-in-place order was issued last spring in New York City, Andrea Hazen was buying paintbrushes, oil paints and canvases.

She sat alone in her light-filled Manhattan apartment, painting and listening to jazz, throughout the hardest months of the pandemic. When the city began to open up, she started playing tennis at the concrete courts across from her apartment block.

Andrea has not been able to travel to see her partner, Édouard Mauvais-Jarvis, who lives in Paris, for seven months.

A mutual friend introduced the couple when Édouard was visiting New York eight and a half years ago, and they instantly connected. They live in separate countries but their lives are intertwined: They own properties and pets together and usually see each other at least every six weeks. But the pandemic changed all that.

“It’s become unbearable,” Andrea confided. “You know, a couple of months I can bear being apart … this is just unreal.”

Andrea and Édouard FaceTime each other every day but it is no substitute for human contact. “I miss that physical presence,” Édouard explained. “Sometimes you just want to be able to sit next to each other and not say anything. That’s the hardest part.”

Andrea is waiting for the French consulate to issue her what is known as a "laissez-passer", a pass that gives her permission to travel to France from the United States.

Her apartment is filled with her "pandemic paintings": one features the view from the parking lot of the Monoprix grocery store near where Édouard lives in Meudon in southwest Paris.

Many other binational couples are in the same situation because non-essential travel to the European Union is currently banned from multiple countries, including the US, unless you are an EU citizen, a resident or you have close family there.

Unmarried couples have to prove their ties and wait for permission – and this can take a long time. Sometimes requests are not approved.

When Lauren Child, from Richmond, Virginia, found herself separated from her French boyfriend, Xavier Sobanski, she joined a worldwide social media campaign called #LoveIsNotTourism that lobbies European countries to make exemptions to the ban.

Members of the group worked hard to come up with innovative ways to raise awareness of their plight, including creating a video montage of couples separated due to the travel restrictions and circulating it on social media. The group even won over several French politicians including the senator for French citizens living abroad, Joëlle Garriaud-Maylam, who lobbied for their cause.

On August 8, the French minister of state for tourism, French nationals abroad and the French language, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, announced that France would start issuing a laissez-passer for couples who could prove their ties to each other.

"This virus doesn't like love, but we do!" Lemoyne tweeted. But three weeks went by without any couples receiving their passes and so members of the group went to meet with French politicians.

It was not until September 17 that France’s minister of state for European affairs, Clément Beaune, announced that the laissez-passer system was to be simplified and promised that the first passes would be issued within a week.

Lemoyne later said the first pass had been issued on September 22, and the #LoveIsNotTourism viewed his announcement as proof of their campaign's success.

Lauren finally received her laissez-passer and flew to Paris, arriving on the morning of September 27. She was reunited with Xavier after 264 days apart.

"Cannot describe this feeling,” Lauren posted to the #LoveIsNotTourism’s Facebook page, adding: "haven’t stopped crying all day, and cannot wait for each of you to get this experience, because you ALL WILL!”