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US extends mask rule for travel while weighing new approach

WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal officials are extending the requirement for masks on planes and public transportation for one more month – through mid-April – while taking steps that could lead to lifting the rule.

The mask mandate was scheduled to expire March 18, but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said on Thursday that it will extend the requirement through April 18.

TSA said the extra month will give the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention time to develop new, more targetted policies that will consider the number of cases of COVID-19 nationally and in local communities, and the risk of new variants.

The TSA enforces the rule, which extends to planes, buses, trains and transit hubs.

A decision to eventually scrap the mask requirement – one of the last vestiges of nationwide pandemic rules – has grown more likely in recent weeks as more states, even those led by Democratic governors, relaxed their own mandates for wearing masks indoors, and the CDC eased its recommendations.

That led critics to question why the CDC would allow maskless people to gather in movie theatres and sports arenas but not on planes. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that deciding on the right policy for travel was more complicated than setting recommendations for local communities.

Travellers at the Miami International Airport. PHOTO: AP

“If you’re moving from one zone to another and picking people up… it’s a little bit different, and that requires some consultation, which is what (CDC officials) are going to endeavour to do between now and April 18,” Psaki said.

CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said last week that her agency must study the science around virus transmission “but also the epidemiology and the frequency that we may encounter a variant of concern or a variant of interest in our travel corridors”.

Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said he was disappointed in the one-month extension.

“The science does not support this decision,” he said. Earlier, Wicker and 30 other Republican senators asked Biden to end the mask rule and a requirement that travellers test free of COVID-19 within a day before flying to the US.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the largest US airlines, said in a statement that it urged the administration to end both rules. The federal mask mandate was imposed in January 2021, days after President Joe Biden took office, and has been extended several times.

Last September, the TSA doubled the fines for people who refused to wear a mask on public

transportation to up to USD1,000 for first-time offenders and up to USD3,000 for repeat violations.

The requirement became a lightning rod for confrontation between some passengers and airline crews. Since the start of 2021, airlines have reported more than 6,000 incidents of unruly passengers, most of them involving disputes over mask wearing. That history could make it unlikely for airlines to require masks once the federal rule lapses.

Flight attendants were once mostly in favour of masks, which they viewed as protecting their health. They largely supported the federal rule, which carried more weight than an airline policy.


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