Mask mandate extended for air flights and on public transport until April 18

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it will work with the TSA and other agencies to determine what policy changes are warranted. The mask requirement for transport settings is one of the few pandemic-related federal mandates still in place.

“This revised framework will be based on COVID-19 community levels, the risk of new variants, national data, and the latest scientific data,” the CDC said in a statement.

The extension of the mandate comes as airlines expect an increase in the number of travelers for the spring break season. The emergence of the omicron variant just after Thanksgiving dampened travel demand earlier this year, but carriers said they expected a rebound in bookings. In recent weeks, TSA data shows an increase in the number of people being checked at airport checkpoints.

The mandate drew criticism from some Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who lobbied to end the mask requirement.

Shortly before Thursday’s announcement, Wicker, the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and 30 other senators sent a letter to President Biden urging him to lift pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“I am disappointed that President Biden has chosen to extend these terms again,” Wicker said in a statement after the announcement. “Science does not support this decision.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other Republicans have introduced legislation to overturn the requirement.

Some in the transport industry had also argued that it was time the rule was overturned. The American Public Transportation Association wrote to the White House last week saying that ending the mandate would help keep the country on a “return to normalcy” path.

Airlines for America, the trade group that represents major US airlines, said its members would continue to abide by the mask mandate, but also urged the administration to “identify a way forward on the policies of the covid era”, such as mask wearing and pre-departure testing for international travellers.

The extension of the mask mandate comes after states rolled back rules that people wear masks indoors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask-wearing rules. The revised guidelines detail new measures and color-coded areas designed to help individuals assess the risk in their community so they can determine if additional precautions are needed.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Thursday briefing that the extension of transport mask rules reflects variation in coronavirus rates between communities.

“If we’re in Washington, DC, and we’re in a green zone or a yellow zone, you can make a clear assessment,” she said. “If you’re moving from one area to another and picking people up from one area to another, that’s a bit different and requires some consultation.”

Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, said while the CDC might want to make a distinction between crowded transportation environments and other public places, national mask guidelines have become increasingly complicated.

“You really put a lot of emphasis on patients and people to differentiate what’s a good setting,” he said. “It’s hard for people to come to a consistent conclusion.”

Galiatsatos said masks — along with vaccinations — are precautions that should stay in place until the pandemic is over, with additional steps like weekly testing used during power surges.

Airlines began requiring customers to wear masks in mid-2020 as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The Trump administration refused to implement a mask mandate, but shortly after taking office, President Biden issued an order requiring the wearing of masks in all transportation settings.

While numerous studies show that wearing a mask can reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the mandate has fueled a wave of conflict on planes and at airports. The vast majority of onboard incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration are mask-related, the agency said.

In 2021, the FAA received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly behavior from passengers and more than 70% of the cases were mask-related. The agency proposed more than $1 million in fines related to disruptions that also included assaults on crew members, fellow passengers and violations of airline alcohol policies.

Hoping to deter bad behavior, the TSA — charged with enforcing the federal mask mandate at airports, on trains and in other transportation settings — last year doubled fines for violations up to $1,000 for first offenders and up to $3,000 for second offenders. The agency said in February that it had imposed nearly $400,000 in civil penalties on more than 600 mask violators.

The transport workers’ union said it could accept science-based health advice, but in a statement on Thursday it linked the mask rule to an increase in violence.

“Unruly passengers were an issue our members dealt with before the pandemic, but we’ve seen this behavior increase dramatically in the past two years since mask mandates were enacted,” said Alex Garcia, international executive vice president. of the union.

Children under 2 and those with certain disabilities are exempt from the mask requirement.

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