Federal mask mandate temporarily extended for travel in US

Mask-wearing has been one of the most controversial actions the government has taken to control Covid-19

A sign advising travellers to wear a mask at Denver International Airport. AP
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US President Joe Biden's administration is issuing a short-term extension on a federal mandate requiring travellers to wear masks on planes, trains and in transit hubs.

The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) will issue the two-week extension to monitor any increase in severe virus outcomes amid a surge in Covid-19 cases across the US, the Associated Press reported.

The current requirements, which have been in place since February 2021, were set to expire on April 18.

“In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalisations and deaths, and healthcare system capacity, the CDC order will remain in place at this time,” the CDC said in a statement.

A formal announcement is expected later on Wednesday.

When the Transportation Security Administration extended the requirement last month, it said the CDC had been hoping to roll out a more flexible masking strategy that would have replaced the nationwide requirement.

In a joint letter to the new White House Covid-19 response co-ordinator Dr Ashish Jha last month, groups including the US Transit Authority and the Chamber of Commerce pressed for an end to mask mandates.

The measures “no longer provide the public health benefits they once did”, it said. “Today, these measures are imposing significant costs on the travelling public, airline employees, and the American travel and tourism industries.”

Demand for transit across the US is at about 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transit Association.

The Senate approved a resolution to repeal the federal travel mask mandate, but it has not moved into the House yet. The White House said it would veto the resolution.

Mask-wearing has been one of the most controversial actions the government has taken to control the virus, and a surge of abusive incidents on planes has been related to it.

Last year, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) filed 5,981 unruly passenger reports, 4,290 of which were mask-related.

This year, the FAA has filed 1,150 reports of unruly passengers. Of that, 744 were related to face masks. Eighty passengers were referred to the FBI for potential prosecution.

Some airlines in the UK — which is recovering from a rise in cases of the BA. 2 Omicron subvariant — announced the removal of their mask mandates in mid-March.

Shortly afterwards, easyJet and British Airlines suffered staff shortages due to Covid-19 infections, which resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: April 14, 2022, 4:01 AM