US Extends Transit Mask Mandate Through May 3 Amid COVID Uptick

By David Shepardson

April 13, 2022

(Reuters) - President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday extended by 15 days a U.S. mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and in transit hubs.

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 April 18, in place through May 3 amid an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The U.S. 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.

The TSA said on Wednesday 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 U.S. cases." The TSA said during the 15-day extension the "CDC will assess the potential impact the recent rise of COVID-19 cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations, deaths and healthcare system capacity."

Both the CDC and TSA mask requirements have been repeatedly extended.

Airlines for America, a trade group, on Wednesday 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 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 covering.

The U.S. 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.

The mask requirements have resulted in friction sometimes on U.S. 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 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 has 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.