As part of a sweeping new plan to implement greater health and safety protocols in preparation for a pandemic winter of battling Delta and Omicron variants, President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a number of new COVID-19 measures, including some that affect travelers directly.
Notably, the testing requirement for international arrivals is being tightened: Starting December 6, all international arrivals, vaccinated or not, will need to be tested for COVID no more than one calendar day before flying to the United States.
“We believe that tightening that testing requirement for predeparture will help catch more potential cases of people who may be positive before they fly into this country,” senior administration officials said during a press briefing about the new protocols.
Prior to November 8, all international passengers flying into the United States age two and older—including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents—were required to provide proof of a negative COVID test (PCR, antigen, or approved home or self tests) taken within three days prior to boarding their flight to the U.S. After November 8, fully vaccinated Americans continued to be held to that requirement, but unvaccinated Americans needed to be tested within one day of boarding their flight to the U.S. Now, all international travelers will be scrambling for the last-minute COVID test within one day of travel.
The administration stopped short of requiring a new postarrival COVID test or quarantine, actions that some media outlets had reported were being considered as part of the new public health policies unveiled on December 2. But even without those postarrival conditions, Scott Keyes, founder of flight deal newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights, said that the tighter pretravel testing rule could further discourage international travel.
“Reducing the preflight testing period to one day for all travelers will have a substantial dampening effect on international travel, both Americans traveling abroad and foreigners visiting here,” Keyes said in a statement. “We’ve already seen international travel interest drop sharply after the Omicron variant was discovered, while domestic travel interest has held steady. Today’s news will exacerbate that trend—a significant number of travelers will reconsider international travel plans in favor of domestic trips where no preflight testing is required.”
Mask mandate for planes, trains extended into March
In addition to the stricter testing requirement for international travel, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is extending the requirement to wear masks while in all transportation hubs and on public modes of transportation, including in and on airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, rideshares, airports, seaports, and train, bus, and subway stations.
The order was set to expire on January 18 and will now be in place until (at least) March 18, 2022—this is the third time it is being extended.
The transportation mask mandate applies to all travelers whether they are vaccinated or not. Children under the age of two, as well as those with a disability that prohibits them from wearing a mask, are exempt. Masks can be briefly removed while eating, drinking, or taking medication; to verify someone’s identity such as TSA airport screenings; and when oxygen masks are required on an aircraft.
Masks must be worn over the mouth and nose, according to the initial CDC order implementing the rule, which the TSA, along with federal, state, and local authorities, enforces. For those who choose to wear cloth masks in lieu of standard surgical or N95 masks, the masks “should be made with two or more layers of a breathable fabric that is tightly woven (i.e., fabrics that do not let light pass through when held up to a light source)”—that goes for gaiters, too, which should have two layers of fabric or be folded into two layers, according to the agency.
Masks or face coverings that don’t cut it? According to the CDC, these are a no-go:
- Face shields
- Scarves, ski masks, balaclavas, or bandannas
- Turtleneck collars pulled up over the mouth and nose
- Masks containing slits, valves, or punctures
Fines for noncompliance range from $500 up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.
Omicron spurs U.S. ban on travel from eight African countries
The latest travel protocols come just days after the administration implemented a ban on foreign nationals entering the United States from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe (U.S. citizens and residents are exempt) in response to the new “variant of concern,” Omicron, that was recently discovered in southern Africa.
“The profile of [the Omicron variant] includes multiple mutations across the SARS-CoV-2 genome, some of which are concerning,” President Joe Biden stated on November 26 upon implementing the travel ban. “According to the WHO, preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern. Further, the WHO reports that the number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in the Republic of South Africa.”
The U.S. is among a cascade of countries hoping to contain the spread of Omicron with new travel restrictions, even against the advice of the WHO, which has noted that border closings often have limited effect.
But some have argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. President Biden’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on Monday that “it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant.”
In the meantime, the Biden administration is encouraging Americans to get vaccinated and to get their booster shots as soon as they are eligible to enhance their protection against COVID. As part of his new Omicron-spurred COVID action plan, the president is expanding access to free at-home testing via health insurance reimbursement and distribution centers.