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US To Extend Airplane, Transit Mask Mandate Through April 18

By Dave Simpson

President Joe Biden's administration will extend requirements for travellers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and in transit hubs through April 18 as public health authorities review when mask requirements should be dropped, the White House has confirmed.

Extended By A Month

The move extends the current requirements that were set to expire March 18 by a month.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in statements on Thursday 10 March that CDC will work with other government agencies "to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor."

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The TSA extension comes at the CDC's recommendation. Airline and some government officials think this could be the last nationwide extension of the mask requirements.

Airlines and travel groups last month called on the administration by March 18 to "repeal the Federal mask mandate for public transportation or provide a clear roadmap to remove the mask mandate within 90 days."

The mask requirements have resulted in significant friction on US airplanes. The Federal Aviation Administration says since January 2021, there have been a record 6,800 unruly passenger incidents reported -- and 70% involved masking rules.

The CDC last month eased its guidance for wearing masks. US government agencies have dropped mask requirements in federal buildings in the Washington area and other places with low or medium levels of COVID-19.

The CDC said last week that 93% of the US population is in a location where COVID levels are low enough that people do not need to wear masks.

United Airlines

United Airlines UAL.O said on Thursday March 10 that it would allow 2,200 unvaccinated workers to return to their normal positions as the pandemic recedes.

United Airlines UAL.O will allow unvaccinated employees to return to their jobs starting March 28.

The Chicago-based US carrier said in a memo that approximately 2,200 employees had received a vaccine-related reasonable accommodations after it had become one of the first major US employers to mandate employee vaccines. "We plan to welcome back those employees who have been out on an approved (accommodation) to their normal positions starting" March 28, the memo said.

The above United Airlines news followed news that United Airlines Holdings Inc UAL.O will allow workers who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 for religious or medical reasons to return at the end of this month, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday March 9, citing people familiar with the matter.

The move permits staffers with exemptions from the carrier's vaccination requirement for its US employees to return from unpaid leave or from the non-customer-facing roles they were allowed to apply for as an alternative to their regular jobs, the report said.

United Airlines declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Reuters.

Last month, a US appeals court ordered a new review of a decision not to block United Airlines from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers.

Chicago-based United was the first major air carrier to issue a vaccine requirement, and its chief executive officer Scott Kirby had defended the employee mandate, saying "we did this for safety. We believe it saved lives."

Kirby said that approximately 200 of the company's 67,000 employees refused to get vaccinated and were fired.

The 200 employees won't be brought back and the newly hired workers will still have to be vaccinated, The WSJ report said.

All of the above United Airlines news followed news that, as mentioned above, a US appeals court on Thursday 17 February ordered a new review of a decision not to block United Airlines UAL.O from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to return the issue to a U.S. district judge who had rejected a request for an injunction blocking the mandate while employees argue their case against itChicago-based United was the first major air carrier to issue a vaccine requirement.

Judges Jennifer Walker Elrod and Andrew S. Oldham ruled United's policy forces employees to choose "between pay and adhering to religious convictions.

The majority reversed the district court conclusion suing employees "have not demonstrated irreparable injury absent an injunction" and sent it back for "consideration of the remaining preliminary injunction factors."

United said on Thursday 17 February that "there’s no doubt our vaccine requirement has saved lives and kept our employees out of the hospital....We will continue to vigorously defend our policy."

Ia scathing dissent, Judge Jerry E. Smith said the majority wanted to "play CEO of a multinational corporation" and "shatters every dish in the china shop," adding "for every conceivable reason that the (employees) could lose this appeal, they should."

He added, "Nothing, especially not the law, will thwart this majority’s plans."

In December, United chief executive Scott Kirby defended the employee mandate: "We did this for safety. We believe it saved lives."

Kirby said that approximately 200 of United's 67,000 employees did not comply and were fired. He added about six pilots were fired out of approximately 13,000.

"Sickness is bad for business-and for unvaccinated pilots, who are more likely to die from the coronavirus than are their vaccinated colleagues," Smith wrote.

Additional US Details

The administration is also considering lifting requirements that international visitors get a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel, officials said, as many countries have dropped testing requirements. The administration requires foreign air travelers to be vaccinated.

On Thursday 11 March, 31 Republican senators asked the administration to end the mask and pre-departure testing requirements. "It is time for the federal government to recognize this reality, follow the science, and reduce or eliminate these restrictions immediately," Senator Roger Wicker said.

The current CDC transit order, which has been in place since soon after Biden took office in January 2021, has been previously extended three times and requires masks to be worn by all travelers on airplanes, ships, trains, subways, buses, taxis and ride-shares and at transportation hubs such as airports, bus or ferry terminals, train and subway stations, and seaports.

His predecessor, President Donald Trump, rejected requests from US public health agencies to impose the requirements in transit - even though airlines and some other transportation modes had required masks.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration over the transportation mask mandate.

"Seat-belt laws likewise took away the 'liberty' to choose driving (or flying) without a seat belt, but losing that choice was not irreparable harm," the Justice Department said in response, adding the court should reject Paxton's lawsuit.

News by Reuters, edited by Hospitality Ireland. Click subscribe to sign up for the Hospitality Ireland print edition.

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Enjoy full access to Hospitality Ireland, our weekly email news digest, all website and app content, and every digital issue.
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