Domestic travel vaccine mandate back in spotlight

The debate over requiring COVID-19 vaccines for domestic travel is back in the spotlight this week, despite pushback from the business community and the potential for strong backlash if the Biden administration imposes a mandate.

The White House said that a potential mandate is not off the table, and the uptick in COVID-19 cases brought on by the highly transmissible omicron variant has raised questions over whether a requirement is another way to keep Americans safe.

President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE’s chief medical adviser, Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci Auschwitz Memorial says RFK Jr. speech at anti-vaccine rally exploits Holocaust tragedy Thousands descend on DC for anti-vaccine mandate rally Sunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates MORE, said on Wednesday that the administration is discussing a mandate, but pointed to the safety of the mask requirement in place for all U.S. transportation networks.

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“When you're dealing with domestic flights, you want to keep people safe on domestic flights. And as I said, right now, we feel that the masking requirement and the degree of filtration on a plane is sufficient to keep people safe,” Fauci told reporters during a White House COVID-19 response team briefing. “If there's a need to do more beyond this masking, mainly having a vaccine issue, we will seriously consider that as new information arises.”

Fauci said that every intervention that can keep Americans safe is on the table and being discussed.

“So, it’s just keeping an open mind that the situation may change. But at this particular time, we do not feel that is necessary to make that a requirement for domestic flights,” he said.

Biden said he would impose a mandate if his medical team recommended one on Tuesday, talking to reporters while on a walk in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

His comments largely echoed remarks he made last month that he would wait for word from the scientific community on the issue.

Airlines and other business groups oppose a vaccine and testing requirement for domestic air travel.

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Delta Air Lines on Wednesday reiterated their position that the health protections on airlines enable safe travel, pointing to the hospital grade filtration systems and masking onboard aircraft and inside airports.

“We also know that air travel is safer than doing most things you do on a daily basis, such as grocery shopping,” a Delta spokesperson told The Hill. “At Delta, we are carrying millions of people a week domestically and it would bottleneck the system to require vaccines for domestic travel.”

Airlines dealt with many workers calling out sick over the Christmas holiday, causing major flight cancellations. Nearly 1,300 flights were canceled on Tuesday, bringing the global total of flights canceled since Christmas Eve to more than 10,000.

Despite the surging number of cases across the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 2 million travelers were screened at checkpoints on Tuesday.

The U.S. Travel Association, when asked about vaccines for domestic travel being back in the spotlight, pointed to recent data that Americans who are traveling again are among the most vaccinated.

American travelers — those who have taken at least one trip of 50 miles or more from home in the past two years — have a higher vaccination rate, at 80 percent, than the general U.S. population, according to data released on Dec. 13 from the market research firm Destination Analysts.

The U.S. Travel Association argues a mandate would put pressure on workers in the travel industry, create problems at airports and hurt families with kids too young to get the vaccine.

“The carrot-and-stick plan under consideration would put extraneous pressure on the back of the travel industry and its front-line workers, create a logistical dilemma at airports and have an unfair and negative impact on families with young children not yet eligible for the vaccine,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the group’s executive vice president of public affairs and policy.

Airlines for America, which represents the major U.S. airlines, said that they have “concerns about the implementation and enforcement of such a policy” and that they have been informed by the administration that there is no imminent policy proposal. 

Vaccine mandates are already in place for international visitors to the U.S.

All nonessential foreign visitors coming in by land and air have to be fully vaccinated, a policy that began on Nov. 8, and all essential foreign travelers into the U.S. must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 22.

Fauci on Wednesday said there is a difference between requiring a vaccine to get into the U.S. and requiring one for travel within the U.S.

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“The difference between requiring a vaccination before you get on a plane to come from out of the country into the United States is for the obvious reason of keeping infection, particularly new variants, out of the country,” he said.

Fauci made headlines on Sunday when he said that “anything that could get people more vaccinated would be welcome” when asked for his thoughts on a domestic travel mandate.

He has since attempted to clean up his remarks. On Monday, he said just because an idea is on the table, it doesn’t mean the administration will impose it.

“Everything that comes up as a possibility, we put it on the table and we consider it, that does not mean that it is likely to happen,” Fauci told CNN’s Jim AcostaJames (Jim) AcostaMcEnany says Biden's press conference 'most delusional' she's ever seen If there's 'no federal solution' to COVID, will Biden end the vaccine mandate? Domestic travel vaccine mandate back in spotlight MORE. “I doubt if we’re going to see something like that in the reasonably foreseeable future.” 

The administration is facing pressure to impose a mandate from Democrats on Capitol Hill, although Republicans would likely criticize one based on the party’s criticism of Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees.

Thirty-six members in November signed a letter to Biden, which was led by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinOvernight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs MORE (D-Calif.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), urging the administration to require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for airline passengers.

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“The Administration has taken important steps to strengthen our pandemic response in the face of the winter wave and Omicron variant, and I strongly encourage additional action in the form of a requirement that domestic airline passengers show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test before boarding their flight,” Beyer told The Hill on Wednesday.

“Nobody who has COVID should be getting on a plane, especially with already elevated case levels,” he added. 

— Updated at 4:52 p.m.