The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave many Americans the go-ahead to ditch masks indoors, ushering in a new approach to the pandemic as the world learns to live with COVID-19. But those changes to masking guidelines and other COVID-19 measures won't bring major changes to air travel in the U.S. just yet.
With COVID-19 cases dropping after the Omicron explosion, the calculus for fighting the pandemic is changing. Many major cities from California to Minnesota and New York have dropped mask mandates in recent days. Late last week, the CDC gave more communities across the U.S. leeway to do the same.
The updated guidance released Friday gives nearly 70% of Americans the all-clear to stop wearing masks indoors, as well as stop social distancing or avoiding crowded indoor spaces. Those new recommendations were driven by a change in how the CDC calculates each county's risk from COVID-19: Rather than basing it mostly on case counts, the public health agency is now looking mostly at the pandemic's strain on hospitals.
“We want to give people a break from things like masking when our levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things get worse in the future,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, according to the New York Times. “We need to be prepared and we need to be ready for whatever comes next.”
But that doesn't mean travelers can ditch their masks on planes or in airports yet.
The federal mask mandate on planes, in airports, and other forms of public transportation remains in place even after the CDC's new masking guidance. First put in place in early 2021 after President Joe Biden took office, it's been extended several times throughout the last year – and the nation's largest union of flight attendants is pushing the Biden administration to extend it once again.
Federal public health officials haven't officially weighed in on whether they'll require masks for air travel beyond mid-March. On Monday, a spokeswoman for the TSA – the federal agency in charge of enforcing the mandate – said on Twitter the agency “will continue to assess the duration of the requirement in consultation with CDC.”
With the CDC's tune changing on masks, it could ramp up pressure to drop the mandates as Americans expect to go maskless elsewhere. Flight attendants have born the brunt of the mask mandate, with reports of unruly passengers skyrocketing throughout the pandemic due in part to masking requirements.
Pressure is also on the CDC to drop one of the longest-standing COVID-19 restrictions for international travel: The requirement to get a negative COVID-19 test no more than one day before flying back to the U.S. from abroad.
Like the mask mandate, testing requirements for international travel have been in place for more than a year. And with the emergence of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, they've gotten tougher: Even fully vaccinated Americans returning home now have just one day before departure to get a test, instead of the previous three-day window.
Countries across the globe have been dropping many entry restrictions in recent weeks. The United Kingdom dropped its convoluted entry system with multiple tests and quarantines. France, Italy, Switzerland, and Portugal have all nixed pre-travel testing requirements for fully vaccinated foreign travelers. Iceland and Norway have dropped nearly all entry requirements and COVID-19 restrictions altogether, returning to pre-pandemic entry regulations.
In the U.S., testing requirements to fly home – and the prospect of being forced to quarantine abroad – have kept international travel at bay. Major U.S. airlines and business groups have called on the Biden administration to drop the testing restrictions, too. So far, Biden's team has made no indication of when those rules may disappear.
“Surveys of air passengers indicate that pre-departure testing is a leading factor in the decision not to travel internationally. People simply are unwilling to take the chance that they will be unable to return to the U.S.,” the groups wrote to the Biden administration earlier this month.
While nationwide masking guidance is changing with the pandemic, those changes don't apply to air travel. A federal mask mandate for planes and airports remains in place until at least March 18. And there's no word yet on when testing requirements to fly back to the U.S. from abroad may disappear.
But the latest moves from the CDC could increase the pressure on the Biden administration to end those policies sooner rather than later.