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Airline mask mandate extension ‘on the table’ as traveler numbers soar


(WASHINGTON) — The White House says extending the federal mask mandate for airlines and other forms of transportation is still possible despite urging from GOP lawmakers and transportation industry leaders to end the measure, which is set to expire next week.

The decision could be influenced by an increase in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and a large increase in travelers. The TSA screened 2.6 million travelers on March 20 — a record since the pandemic began and an upward trend many experts expect to continue as summer approaches.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said extending the public health order is “absolutely on the table” on NBC’s “Today Show” on Monday. Dr. Jha was asked whether rising case numbers could justify extending the order.

“This is a decision that the CDC Director Dr. Walensky is going to make,” Dr. Jha said. “I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how to answer that. We are going to see that framework come out I think in the next few days.”

CEOs of airlines including Alaska Air, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue Airways and United sent a letter to President Joe Biden in late March asking him to roll back the mask mandate on airlines as well as the testing requirements for passengers. They pointed to the efficacy of vaccines and to the “burden” enforcing such measures puts on airline staff.

“Now is the time for the Administration to sunset federal transportation travel restrictions – including the international pre-departure testing requirement and the federal mask mandate – that are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment,” the letter said.

“Importantly, the effectiveness and availability of high-quality masks for those who wish to wear them gives passengers the ability to further protect themselves if they choose to do so,” industry leaders said in the letter. “It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these venues having the protective air filtration system that aircraft do.”

GOP Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Roger Wicker R-Miss., as well as Reps. Sam Graves, R-Mo., and Garret Graves, R-La., also called on the White House to roll back the order in a letter last week.

“At a time when operators across all modes of our Nation’s transportation system are grappling with skyrocketing fuel prices and the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the Administration’s policies should reflect nothing less than steadfast support for the transportation sector’s rapid recovery. To that end, we urge you to join us in supporting our Nation’s transportation operators, employees, and users by ending immediately the Federal transportation mask mandate, or allowing it to expire once and for all,” the letter from lawmakers said.

Airlines for America, a group representing major airlines, and other travel industry groups also sent a letter to Dr. Jha last week urging the administration to roll back the COVID mitigation measures.

“Simply put, the pre-departure testing requirement and the mask mandate no longer provide the public health benefits they once did,” the letter said. “Today, these measures are imposing significant costs on the traveling public, airline employees, and the American travel and tourism industries.”

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