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Airline, transit mask mandates extended through April 18

Third extension comes as lawmakers and governors urge easing of restrictions

Airline passengers wearing face masks at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
Airline passengers wearing face masks at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House on Thursday announced it would extend the current federal mask mandate for passengers on airplanes and public transit for another month — the third extension of the mandate since it was imposed in January 2021. 

The requirement, which had been set to expire March 18, will now extend through April 18, according to a Biden administration official, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spending the next month examining how best to proceed. 

“During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” an administration official said. “This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science.”

The extension comes as a handful of states, many with Democratic governors, and the CDC itself have altered requirements or recommendations that Americans wear masks in public places. The transportation requirement applies to passengers on airplanes, trains and buses and those in airports.

In late February, the CDC released guidelines suggesting that roughly 70 percent of Americans could stop wearing masks, depending on the prevalence of the virus in their communities. The guidance included a variety of factors including COVID-19-related hospital admissions over the previous week and new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people.

That shift spurred both travel groups and some Republican lawmakers to urge the CDC and Transportation Security Administration to lift the requirement. The two agencies collaborate on both the recommendation and enforcement of that recommendation.

An airline industry group, Airlines for America, said in a statement its members would “continue to comply with and enforce the federal mask mandate” while also urging the administration “to identify a path forward from Covid-era policies — including eliminating pre-departure testing requirements — when they are no longer supported by recent circumstances.”

Letters

Within an hour of the White House announcement, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, sent a letter he and 30 other Republicans signed urging President Joe Biden to let the mask mandate expire.

In a Feb. 25 letter to White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients, Airlines for America, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Travel Association urged the administration to lift the masking requirement or announce a “plan and timeline to repeal the federal mask mandate within the subsequent 90 days.”

“COVID-19 hospitalization rates have decreased significantly and the mask mandate should be lifted to reflect the improved public health environment,” they wrote in a letter that also recommended removing the pre-departure testing requirement for fully vaccinated travelers and ending travel bans and “avoid travel” advisories. 

On March 9, Reps. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., led 90 GOP House members in a letter urging the TSA to allow the mask mandate to expire after March 18. “It is past time that we follow the science and allow Americans to return to normalcy,” the letter read.

And on Feb. 16, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, sued the Biden administration to seek the overturn of the mask mandate for airlines and airports, arguing the mandate was “unlawfully issued,” not authorized by Congress and not put up for notice and comment, which is ordinarily required for regulations. 

The TSA mandate was first announced Jan. 31, 2021, then renewed on April 30 and again on Aug. 20.

The August announcement extended the requirement through March 18 and applied to individuals at airports, on commercial aircraft, on buses and commuter rail systems. The requirement included exemptions for travelers under the age of 2 and those with certain disabilities, and violations of the mandate came with civil penalties.

Unruly passengers

The requirement corresponded with a spike in unruly passenger reports. The Federal Aviation Administration reported on March 7 that 535 of the 814 unruly passenger cases reported so far this year were associated with face mask requirements. That figure was cited by the GOP House members, who argued in their letter that “eliminating the mask mandate will provide a safer travel experience for everyone involved.”

Arjun Garg, a partner at Hogan Lovells and former chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, said much of the attitude related to masks on airplanes has to do with the social appetite for such protections. 

After 9/11, for example, there was a social consensus that spurred major overhauls to the way Americans traveled: Removing shoes and going through magnetometers quickly became widely accepted, though groused about. 

He said a “natural inertia” tends to keep federal interventions in place “past where they might make sense,” and said it was unclear whether passengers would likely continue to wear masks even after the mandate expires. 

“I think it remains to be seen with COVID whether this would be considered something that’s happened and done and whether we move on or whether there’s a permanent adjustment in the system as society accepts new inconveniences as part of having a functioning transportation system.”

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