US to extend public transport mask mandate to mid-March

Travellers waiting to board a train at Union Station in Washington on Nov 24, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Joe Biden's administration will extend requirements for travellers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and buses, and at airports and train stations, to mid-March, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters, amid concerns about a new Covid-19 variant.

A formal announcement extending the requirements to March 18 is expected on Thursday (Dec 2), the sources said. The White House and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) declined to comment. The TSA in August extended the transportation mask order to Jan 18.

Mr Biden plans to discuss the US strategy for fighting Covid-19 this winter on Thursday and the transit mask extension is expected to be part of his remarks.

The White House also plans to announce stricter testing rules for international visitors. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed late on Tuesday that it is working to impose stricter Covid-19 testing rules for air travellers entering the United States amid concerns about the Omicron variant.

The first known US case of the Omicron variant was confirmed on Wednesday - a fully vaccinated person in California who returned to the US from South Africa on Nov 22 and tested positive seven days later.

On Monday, the US barred most foreign nationals who have been in eight southern African countries. The CDC told airlines late on Tuesday it would require them to turn over passenger contact information for all travellers who have been in those countries - and will forward that to state and public health agencies.

The current CDC order, which has been in place since soon after Mr Biden took office in January, requires masks to be worn by all travellers on airplanes, ships, trains, subways, buses, taxis and ride-share services and at transport hubs such as airports, bus and ferry terminals, train and subway stations, and seaports.

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

Government agencies briefed industry officials about the change late on Wednesday, sources told Reuters.

Cause of friction

The mask requirements have been the source of friction, especially aboard US airlines, where some travellers have refused to wear masks.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has instituted a "zero tolerance" enforcement effort on unruly passengers, said on Tuesday that since Jan 1, it had received reports from airlines of 3,923 passengers refusing to wear masks.

In some US states, transport hubs are among the only places where masks are still required.

Remote video URL

The White House has been debating a number of changes to strengthen international testing.

Currently, vaccinated international air travellers can present a negative Covid-19 test result obtained within three days from their point of departure. Nearly all foreign nationals must be vaccinated to enter the US. Unvaccinated travellers currently must get a negative Covid-19 test within one day of arrival.

The CDC plans to announce a new one-day testing requirement that would apply equally to US citizens as well as foreign nationals and which could take effect as early as next week.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.