US health officials on Wednesday 13 April extended by 15 days a US mandate requiring travellers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and in transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers want the administration to immediately end the 14-month-old mask mandate. The latest extension would keep the requirements, which had been set to expire 18 April, in place through 3 May amid an increase in COVID cases.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first issued a public health order requiring masks in interstate transportation and at transit hubs, including airplanes, mass transit, taxis, ride-share vehicles and trains effective in February 2021. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.
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The CDC said Wednesday 13 April that the extension was prompted by a rise in cases and to "give it time to assess the potential impact of the rise of cases on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and healthcare system capacity."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki cited the case increase in explaining the extension.
"So what they're trying to do is give a little bit more time to assess its potential impact the rise of the cases had on severe disease, including hospitalization and deaths and healthcare system capacity." She added "at the end of that two weeks they can determine what's next after that."
The TSA said on Wednesday 13 April that it would extend the order through May 3 after the CDC "continues to monitor the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, especially the BA.2 subvariant that now makes up more than 85% of US cases."
Both the CDC and TSA mask requirements have been repeatedly extended.
Airlines for America, a trade group, on Wednesday 13 April in a letter continued to urge Biden's administration "to lean into science and research, which clearly support lifting the mask mandate. It makes no sense to require masks on a plane when masks are not recommended in places like restaurants, bars or crowded sports facilities."
The group said airplane air is among the safest indoor environments "due to the superior ventilation and hospital grade filters."
Delta Air Lines DAL.N chief executive officer Ed Bastian told CNBC earlier Wednesday 13 April that it was time to end the mask mandate and that people need to "make their own decisions and take personal accountability for their health onboard our planes."
The group cited the CDC's guidance that nearly all Americans live in counties where they can avoid wearing masks indoors. The CDC in February eased its guidance for face coverings.
The US Senate voted 57-40 last month to overturn the public health order requiring masks on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, drawing a veto threat from Biden.
Republican Senator Roger Wicker said Wednesday 13 April that the administration "continues to force unnecessary and contradictory mask mandates on the public," while Democratic Senator Ed Markey applauded the extension "given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases."
The mask requirements have resulted in friction sometimes on US airplanes. The Federal Aviation Administration said that since January 2021, there have been a record 7,060 unruly passenger incidents reported - and 70% involved masking rules.
Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen, which represents 65,000 airline workers, said the union respects the CDC mask decision "but we cannot ignore that the mask mandate has driven an unprecedented rise in assaults by unruly passengers against airline workers."
Separately, the Biden administration on Wednesday 13 April renewed the government's COVID-19 public health emergency, allowing millions of Americans to keep getting free tests, vaccines and treatments for at least three more months.
The administration is also considering lifting requirements that international visitors get a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel, as many countries have dropped testing requirements, but is not taking any immediate steps. The United States requires foreign air travelers to be vaccinated.
US CDC To Shrink COVID-19 Int'l Travel Avoidance List
The above news followed news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday 13 April that it will revise its COVID-19 travel recommendations for international destinations and shrink the number of countries the government recommends avoiding.
Approximately 90 countries and regions, including most of Europe, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel and Australia are currently rated by CDC as "Level 4: Very High" and the CDC recommends Americans, even if vaccinated, to avoid travel to those countries.
"This new system will reserve Level 4 travel health notices for special circumstances, such as rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts," the CDC said in a statement, adding that it will be effective Monday 18 April.
Last month, industry group US Travel urged the CDC to end "avoid travel" advisories for all vaccinated individuals and urged the Biden administration to avoid the future "use of travel bans from specific countries."
The letter added that the "CDC should ensure that Americans are not dissuaded from traveling to any place with COVID-19 case rates that are equal to, or less than, the case rates prevailing in the US."
The CDC in recent weeks has been dropping a number of countries from the "Level 4" rating including Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, Botswana, and Haiti.
Airlines and other travel groups have been pressing the Biden administration to lift the pre-departure COVID negative test requirements for international air travelers -- as many other countries have done.
Airline say the testing rules dissuade some Americans from international flights because of the cost of testing and the fear of being stranded abroad if they contract COVID. Administration officials say the issue has been under review in recent weeks but health officials have announced no changes.
White House Faces 18 April Deadline On Transit Mask Mandate
All of the above news followed news that the Biden administration faces an 18 April deadline on whether to extend or end a mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and in transit hubs.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers want the White House to end the 14-month-old mask mandate. But it comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases - including numerous US officials who attended a recent white-tie dinner in Washington.
New White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha told NBC News on Monday 11 April that US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky will decide whether the mandate should be extended.
"I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how to answer that. We're going to see that framework come out in the next few days," Jha said, adding extending the mandate "is absolutely on the table."
The CDC, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, in February eased its guidance for face covering and now says nearly all of the US population live in counties where they do not need to wear masks indoors.
Airlines, travel groups and the US Chamber of Commerce in a letter to Jha released on Monday 11 April reiterated a call to end the mask mandate.
"The science clearly supports lifting the mask mandate, particularly in the context of recent CDC guidance, which found that the overwhelming majority of the US population no longer needs to wear masks indoors," the letter said.
Last month, the US Senate voted 57 to 40 to overturn the public health order requiring masks on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, drawing a veto threat from President Joe Biden.
The mask requirements have resulted in significant friction on US airplanes. The Federal Aviation Administration said that since January 2021, there have been a record 7,060 unruly passenger incidents reported - and 70% involved masking rules.
The administration is also considering lifting requirements that international visitors get a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel, as many countries have dropped testing requirements. The administration requires foreign air travellers to be vaccinated.