Thailand had recently reopened to tourists from 63 countries, and Cambodia had just started to welcome vaccinated visitors with minimal restrictions. Other countries, like Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, were allowing tourists from certain countries to arrive in restricted areas.

Wealthier Asian countries like Japan resisted the pressure to reopen. With the exception of its decision to hold the Summer Olympics, Japan has been cautious throughout the pandemic. It was early to shut its borders and close schools. It rolled out its vaccination campaign only after conducting its own clinical trials. And dining and drinking hours remained restricted in many prefectures until September.

Foreign companies could not bring in executives or other employees to replace those who were moving back home or to another international posting, said Michael Mroczek, a lawyer in Tokyo who is president of the European Business Council.

In a statement on Monday, the council said business travelers or new employees should be allowed to enter provided they follow strict testing and quarantine measures.

“Trust should be put in Japan’s success on the vaccination front,” the council said. “And Japan and its people are now firmly in a position to reap the economic rewards.”

Business leaders said they wanted science to guide future decisions. “Those of us who live and work in Japan appreciate that the government’s policies so far have substantially limited the impact of the pandemic here,” said Christopher LaFleur, former American ambassador to Malaysia and special adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

But, he said, “I think we really need to look to the science over the coming days” to see whether a complete border shutdown is justified.

Students, too, have been thrown into uncertainty. An estimated 140,000 or more have been accepted to universities or language schools in Japan and have been waiting months to enter the country to begin their courses of study.

Carla Dittmer, 19, had hoped to move from Hanstedt, a town south of Hamburg, Germany, to Japan over the summer to study Japanese. Instead, she has been waking up every morning at 1 to join an online language class in Tokyo.

“I do feel anxious and, frankly speaking, desperate sometimes, because I have no idea when I would be able to enter Japan and if I will be able to keep up with my studies,” Ms. Dittmer said. “I can understand the need of caution, but I hope that Japan will solve that matter with immigration precautions such as tests and quarantine rather than its walls-up policy.”

The border closures have economically flattened many regions and industries that rely on foreign tourism.

When Japan announced its reopening to business travelers and international students earlier this month, Tatsumasa Sakai, 70, the fifth-generation owner of a shop that sells ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, in Asakusa, a popular tourist destination in Tokyo, hoped that the move was a first step toward further reopening.

“Since the case numbers were going down, I thought that we could have more tourists and Asakusa could inch toward coming back to life again,” he said. “I guess this time, the government is just taking precautionary measures, but it is still very disappointing.”

Mr. Dery and Ms. Hirose also face a long wait. Mr. Dery, who met Ms. Hirose when they were both working at an automotive parts maker, returned to Indonesia in April 2020 after his Japanese work visa expired. Three months before he departed, he proposed to Ms. Hirose during an outing to the DisneySea amusement park near Tokyo.

Ms. Hirose had booked a flight to Jakarta for that May so that the couple could marry, but by then, the borders were closed in Indonesia.

“Our marriage plan fell apart,” Mr. Dery, 26, said by telephone from Jakarta. “There’s no clarity on how long the pandemic would last.”

Just last week, Mr. Dery secured a passport and was hoping to fly to Japan in February or March.

Upon hearing of Japan’s renewed border closures, he said he was not surprised. “I was hopeful,” he said. “But suddenly the border is about to close again.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” he added. “This pandemic seems endless.”

Reporting was contributed by Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue in Tokyo; Dera Menra Sijabat in Jakarta, Indonesia; Richard C. Paddock in Bangkok; John Yoon in Seoul; Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan; and Yan Zhuang in Sydney, Australia.

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Why Retailers Are Fighting a Vaccine Mandate Before the Holidays

The holiday shopping season has arrived, and retailers are ringing it in by doing everything from cutting prices to stocking showrooms to lure back customers who stayed at home last year. What the biggest of them are not doing is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to: mandate that their workers be vaccinated.

As other industries with workers in public-facing roles, like airlines and hospitals, have moved toward requiring vaccines, retailers have dug in their heels, citing concerns about a labor shortage. And a portion of one of the country’s largest work forces will remain unvaccinated, just as shoppers are expected to flock to stores.

At the heart of the retailers’ resistance is a worry about having enough people to work. In a tight labor market, retailers have been offering perks like higher wages and better hours to prospective employees in hopes of having enough people to staff their stores and distribution centers. The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, has estimated that retailers will hire up to 665,000 seasonal workers this year.

held up in litigation, challenged by a number of lawsuits from a broad coalition of opponents, and could make its way to the Supreme Court. Court filings by the administration warn that blocking the rule would “likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day.”

have increased more than 20 percent over the past two weeks.

“It’s a pretty big ask, there’s no one denying that,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said of requiring vaccinations for retail employees. “But we’ve also tried a lot of other things to help people get vaccinated — and I think a mandate right now is what we need to get over that barrier.”

Walmart, the nation’s biggest private employer, declined to comment on the federation’s lawsuit or its plans for vaccinations or testing. A spokeswoman for Target said the company had “started taking the necessary steps to meet the requirements of the new Covid-19 rules for large companies as soon as the details were announced.”

Spokespeople for several retailers on the federation’s board, including Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Saks, declined to comment for this article.

have not required them for frontline workers, sharing concerns about challenges in hiring. But those workers, including about four million at stores, are among the most vulnerable. They interact frequently with the public and are less likely to be vaccinated themselves. Mandates at Tyson, United Airlines and several health care companies indicate that when faced with the prospect of losing their job, employees most frequently choose inoculation.

“We know vaccine requirements work,” said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the White House. “The federal government, the country’s largest employer, has successfully implemented its requirement in a way that has boosted vaccinations and avoids any disruptions to operations.”

Still, companies mandating vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states legislation has been passed to impede it. Disney, for instance, paused a mandate for employees at Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for employers in the state to require workers to get the shot.

The panic and precautions tied to Covid-19 have played out at retail stores throughout the pandemic and ensnared their workers.

Guitar Center and Dillard’s to argue that they needed to stay open — and keep their employees coming in — despite the worsening public health crisis. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes around mask mandates and then mask enforcement. Retail chains like REI have been criticized for failing to inform employees about Covid cases in stores. Grocery store workers were not given priority access to vaccines in many states.

Target and Walmart, throughout the pandemic. And while they are still facing rising prices and supply chain strain, executives have indicated recently that pressure on staffing has waned.

“We feel really good about our staffing going into the holiday season,” Brian Cornell, Target’s chief executive, told CNBC last week. He added that the company’s retention numbers were “some of the strongest in our history,” which he attributed to perks and safety measures.

Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where foot traffic is already higher than in 2020, regardless of the industry’s efforts to fight the new vaccination and testing requirements. And for those who are concerned about the lack of vaccinations, the companies have bolstered their e-commerce operations and curbside pickup offerings in the past year, though in-store shopping often leads to more purchases and fewer returns.

When asked what Macy’s would tell concerned customers about shopping in stores, Mr. Gennette said: “What I would say is we encourage every one of our colleagues to be vaccinated and every colleague wears a mask in our stores and warehouses to protect themselves and others.”

imploring companies to move forward with the Labor Department rules.

“The hope was to provide some perspective for business leaders to remind them this is not a political issue,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who was one of the signatories. Dr. Jha said it was important for companies in all industries to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a particular role, given the nature of their employee base. He said those measures should be put in place during the holiday season — not after — especially as that is when case numbers are expected to rise.

“Do they really want to be superspreader places during the holiday season and be responsible for their employees getting sick and for their employees spreading it to customers?” Dr. Jha said.

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Asia Pacific

CANBERRA/SYDNEY, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Australia will allow foreign visa holders to enter the country from the start of December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, the latest step to restart international travel and support its economy.

Australia shut its international border in May 2020 and allowed only restricted numbers of citizens and permanent residents to enter in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The rules were relaxed in recent weeks to allow foreign family members of citizens to enter, and Morrison said this will be scaled up from Dec. 1 to allow vaccinated students, business visa holders and refugees to arrive.

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“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. Australia will also allow in vaccinated tourists from South Korea and Japan from Dec 1, he said.

The return of foreign students, who are worth about A$35 billion ($25 billion) a year to the Australian economy, will be a major boost for the education sector.

More than 235,000 foreigners, including about 160,000 students, held visas for Australia at the end of October, government data showed.

Airport staff hold up welcome signage as the first international travellers arrive at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

Many Australian universities have come to rely on foreign students, who make up about 21% of total enrolments, and the border closure led higher education facilities to lay off hundreds of staff.

Many students locked out of Australia have said they would switch to alternative universities if they were unable to begin face-to-face learning in 2022. read more

The relaxation of the border rules is also expected to ease labour shortages, which threaten to stymie an economic rebound.

“This will be critical relief for businesses who are struggling to find workers just to keep their doors open and for those who need highly specialised skills to unlock big projects,” said Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the industry body, the Business Council.

Border rules, swift lockdowns and tough social distancing rules helped Australia to keep its coronavirus numbers far lower than many other comparable countries, with around 200,000 cases and 1,948 deaths.

Most new infections are being reported in Victoria state, which logged 1,029 cases on Monday. New South Wales, home to Sydney, reported 180 cases. Other states and territories are COVID-free or have very few cases.

($1 = 1.3824 Australian dollars)

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Reporting by Renju Jose and Colin Packham; Editing by Richard Pullin

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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In Romania, Hard-Hit by Covid, Doctors Fight Vaccine Refusal

COPACENI, Romania — As a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic crashed over Eastern Europe last month, devastating unvaccinated populations, an Orthodox Church bishop in southern Romania offered solace to his flock: “Don’t be fooled by what you see on TV — don’t be scared of Covid.”

Most important, Bishop Ambrose of Giurgiu told worshipers in this small Romanian town on Oct. 14, “don’t rush to get vaccinated.”

The bishop is now under criminal investigation by the police for spreading dangerous disinformation, but his anti-vaccine clarion call, echoed by prominent politicians, influential voices on the internet and many others, helps explain why Romania has in recent weeks reported the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19.

On Tuesday, nearly 600 Romanians died, the most during the pandemic. The country’s death rate relative to population is almost seven times as high as the United States’, and almost 17 times as high as Germany’s.

Europe’s second-lowest vaccination rate; around 44 percent of adults have had at least one dose, ahead of only Bulgaria, at 29 percent. Overall, the European Union stands at 81 percent, with several countries above 90 percent. Complicating matters, Romania has been without a government since last month, when a centrist coalition unraveled.

some form of a vaccine requirement. Here’s a closer look.

As she spoke, a 66-year-old Covid patient, Nicu Paul, gasped for breath on a bed nearby. His wife, Maria, also suffering severe pulmonary problems from Covid, lay in the next bed. Mr. Paul said he had worked for 40 years as an ambulance driver and never gotten sick — “God saved me,” he said — so he decided against vaccination because “there are so many rumors about the vaccine that I did not know what to believe.”

Romania began vaccinating its citizens last December and put the program under the military, the country’s most respected institution, according to opinion polls. The second most trusted institution, however, is the Orthodox church, which has sent mixed signals on vaccines, with Patriarch Daniel in Bucharest telling people to make up their own minds and listen to doctors, while many local clerics and some influential bishops denounced vaccines as the Devil’s work.

Colonel Ghorghita said he had been shocked and mystified by the reach of anti-vaccination sentiment. “They really believe that vaccines are not the proper way to stop Covid,” he said, adding that this was despite the fact that “more than 90 percent of deaths are unvaccinated people.” Old people, the most vulnerable demographic, have been the hardest to convince, he said, with only 25 percent of people over 80 vaccinated.

In central Bucharest, huge signs display photographs of gravely ill patients in hospitals as part of a campaign to jolt people back to reality. “They are suffocating. They beg. They regret,” reads a caption.

Dr. Streinu-Cercel said she was uneasy with trying to reach people by scaring them. “We should be talking about science, not fear,” she said, but “fear is the only thing that got the attention of the general population.”

Distrust of just about everyone and everything is so deep, she said, that some of her patients “are gasping for breath but tell me that Covid does not exist.”

“It is very difficult when so many people are denying all reality,” she added.

At a vaccination center at her hospital, only a trickle of people pass through most days, though vaccines are free and increasingly necessary following new rules requiring vaccination certificates to enter many public buildings.

One of those getting vaccinated was Norica Gheorghe, 82. She said she had held off for months on getting a shot but decided to go ahead this past week after seeing reports that nearly 600 had died in one day. “My hair stood on end when I saw this number, and I decided that I should get vaccinated,” she said.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Covid disinformation in Romania mostly followed themes that found traction in many other countries, according to Alina Bargaoanu, a Bucharest communications professor who tracks disinformation, with people spreading wild conspiracy theories under fake names on Facebook and other social media.

But as the pandemic dragged on, she added, this largely fake virtual phenomenon morphed into a political movement driven by real people like Diana Sosoaca, an elected member of Romania’s upper house of Parliament. Ms. Sosoaca led a protest in the north of the country that blocked the opening of a vaccination center, denouncing the pandemic as “the biggest lie of the century,” and organized anti-mask rallies in Bucharest. Videos of her antics have attracted millions of views.

Ms. Bargaoanu, the disinformation researcher, said she suspected a Russian hand in spreading alarm over vaccines, but conceded that many of the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy theories originate in the United States, making them particularly hard to debunk because “Romania is a very pro-American country.”

Colonel Ghorghita has taken to social media to rebut the more outlandish falsehoods, and also met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to ask them not to fan the flames of disinformation. “They don’t have a duty to recommend vaccination but they do have a duty not to recommend against it,” he said.

The Orthodox church is particularly important because of its strong influence in rural areas, where vaccination rates are half those in cities like Bucharest, where more than 80 percent of adults have received at least one shot.

In Copaceni, a rural county south of Bucharest, workers at a small clinic offering vaccines said they were appalled by Bishop Ambrose’s anti-vaccine tirades.

“I am fighting to get people vaccinated every day, and then he comes along and tells them not to bother,” said Balota Hajnalka, a doctor running the clinic.

Boryana Dzhambazova contributed reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.

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