© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Travelers wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reclaim their luggage at the airport in Denver, Colorado, U.S., November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration faces an April 18 deadline on whether to extend or end a mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and in transit hubs.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers want the White House to end the 14-month-old mask mandate. But it comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases – including numerous U.S. officials who attended a recent white-tie dinner in Washington.
New White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha told NBC News on Monday that U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky will decide whether the mandate should be extended.
“I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how to answer that. We’re going to see that framework come out in the next few days,” Jha said, adding extending the mandate “is absolutely on the table.”
The CDC, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, in February eased its guidance for face covering and now says nearly all of the U.S. population live in counties where they do not need to wear masks indoors.
Airlines, travel groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a letter to Jha released on Monday reiterated a call to end the mask mandate.
“The science clearly supports lifting the mask mandate, particularly in the context of recent CDC guidance, which found that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population no longer needs to wear masks indoors,” the letter said.
Last month, the U.S. Senate voted 57 to 40 to overturn the public health order requiring masks on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, drawing a veto threat from President Joe Biden.
The mask requirements have resulted in significant friction 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.
The administration is 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. The administration requires foreign air travelers to be vaccinated.